Kim badges may be the latest clue to waning power
Khang Hyun-sung in Seoul
Factory apparently told to stop making the leaders' portraits late last year
Reports that North Koreans are no longer wearing badges featuring portraits of Kim Jong-il have increased speculation that his tight grip on the world's most controlled state may be easing.
South Korea's Joongang Ilbo newspaper quoted an unnamed South Korean military officer as saying North Koreans were told to stop wearing the badges in July.
But the officer admitted that the significance of the development was unclear.
'We learned recently that North Koreans at the country's foreign missions and trading companies as well as those guiding foreigners inside the North are not wearing the Kim Jong-il badges,' the intelligence official said.
The small, thumb-sized metal and plastic badges, showing Kim's face or that of his father and predecessor, Kim Il-sung, are usually pinned to every North Korean's lapel.
The two men are the subjects of an all-pervasive personality cult in the reclusive state and the badges are an important symbol of North Koreans' loyalty.
The South Korean newspaper quoted the official as saying that authorities ordered the Mansudae Art Studio, the largest art-producing facility in the country, to stop manufacturing the Kim Jong-il badges late last year.
This latest report follows other unusual developments in the communist country, which has prompted speculation about possible political instability and challenges to the leadership.
Foreign visitors and diplomats in North Korea have reported that portraits of Mr Kim have been removed from some public areas, while state media have toned down references to the 'Dear Leader'.
This has prompted suggestions Mr Kim is confronting internal challenges to his authority or that he is trying to distance himself from the chronic economic situation in the country, which has left most people dependent on overseas aid for food.
The missing portraits come amid other signs of apparent internal dissent.
A report in The New York Times suggested 130 North Korean generals, about 10 per cent of the military's elite, had defected to China in recent years.
But a leading pro-North Korean newspaper published in Japan, the Chosun Shinbo, has dismissed claims that fissures are appearing at the top of the hierarchy.
'Western media spread rumours regarding political instability or political changes in the North by unilaterally interpreting or intentionally distorting Choson's reality,' said the paper, using the North Korean name for the country.
The paper, which is run by pro-Pyongyang Koreans living in Japan, said the North Korean military and people were united behind their leader against what they saw as an increasingly hostile United States.
'Needless to say, General Kim Jong-il is at the centre of the unity,' added the paper.
South Korea has also been playing down suggestions of political turmoil in its neighbour. Seoul would be hard-pressed to shoulder the huge financial and social burden that the collapse of North Korea would bring about.
Earlier this week, Ko Young-koo, head of the National Intelligence Service, told the National Assembly there were 'no abnormal signs in North Korea'.