Seoul: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's trademark paunch presses a little less snugly against his jumpsuits these days, but is that due to a healthier lifestyle or is he recovering from illness?

Two South Korean dailies ran pictures yesterday of a slimmer Kim, 65, at a meeting this week with China's foreign minister, alongside photographs taken about a year ago, in which he seemed plumper and with more hair in his famed bouffant coiffure.

"Kim Jong-il is noticeably thinner," read the Dong-A Ilbo's headline.

The actual condition of the Dear Leader's health is one of the secretive state's most highly guarded secrets, known to only a small circle of intimates. Last month, South Korea's National Intelligence Service issued a report to knock down speculation that a team of German doctors had flown to Pyongyang to perform heart surgery on him.

"Although Kim suffers from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart problems, his health has not deteriorated enough to affect his public activities," the report said, according to a copy obtained by Yonhap news agency.

And Kim has been active in recent months, making a series of field guidance trips to army bases, factories and schools. "The weight loss is not recent but he's been losing it gradually," said Koh Yu-hwan, an expert on the North at Seoul's Dongguk University. "If you are overweight at his age, it's a problem," Koh said.

South Korean officials had the best look at Kim Jong-il in June 2000 when he hosted an unprecedented and unrepeated summit with then president Kim Dae-jung. The North Korean leader boasted a big belly and an appetite for rich and greasy food. Intelligence sources said it appeared he had tried to adopt a healthier lifestyle in recent years, and might have quit smoking.

The North's official media, which treat Kim with god-like reverence, have also made a shift in their coverage of one health issue. Several stories since 2003 spoke of efforts to cut down on the number of smokers, where they published almost none before.

Kim was once a legendary eater, who demanded the best food for his table, according to a book by Kenji Fujimoto who served as his sushi chef for 13 years from 1988. Kim ballooned in size during that period as he dined on choice meat from Denmark and caviar from Iran, all washed down with many glasses of top-of-the-range cognac.

"He's quit heavy drinking, cut back on meat a lot and also on smoking," said Jang Sung-min, a former aide to Kim Dae-jung.