Photo:A compilation by Reuters of pool photographs and images provided by North Korea's KCNA news agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from 2004 to 2009. The photograph in the lower right was released this week by KCNA

By Jon Herskovitz

The image the world once had of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, with a trademark paunch, platform shoes and a bouffant hair-do, is gone and may never come back. He has now become a gaunt figure with thinning hair who has trouble walking in normal shoes, let alone ones with heels 8-10 centimetres (3-4 inches) high like he used to wear.

A look at photographs the North’s official media has released of Kim over the past few months indicate he is not a healthy man. There has been an enormous amount of speculation about what is wrong with Kim, 67, including a report from South Korean TV network YTN this week that he has life-threatening pancreatic cancer.

Kim’s health is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the highly secretive North and his actual condition is likely known by a handful of people in his inner circle who risk death or prison camp for themselves and their families if they ever whisper a word about Kim’s problems.

It is a state crime in North Korea to make any comment that questions Kim’s god-like status in the communist dynasty he has ruled since 1994 when his father and state founder Kim Il-sung died.