While reports filter out of North Korea that portraits of the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, have been removed from their honored spots, the official radio and news agency are dropping the honorific "Dear Leader" from their reports on Kim, according to Radiopress, a Japanese news agency that monitors North Korea's radio.
Analysts are debating whether Kim is losing his grip on power, or, more likely, quietly orchestrating the downsizing of his own personality cult. As the nation's propaganda chief in the 1970s, Kim paved his way to power by raising his father, Kim Il-sung, to demigod status as founder of the Communist state.
In North Korea, where change is glacial, political clues are slight.
It took Western diplomats and aid workers in Pyongyang three months to realize that portraits removed for "restoration" at some state institutions were not being replaced.
On Wednesday, analysts pored over a dispatch of the official Korean Central News Agency, which began: "Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army Kim Jong-il, general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission, inspected KPA unit 754."
In an otherwise routine report on Kim's visit to an army unit, the absence of "Dear Leader" from the list of titles has raised eyebrows.
"The North Korean leader is reportedly concerned his personality receives too much praise," the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported from Pyongyang.
Portraits have been taken down in homes and offices in three cities near the border with China, according to Douglas Shin, a Korean-American pastor who maintains an informal information network inside the North.
"Three weeks ago, officials received an order, `Do not exalt me too much, therefore take the picture down,'" Shin said Wednesday. "He is trying to lower his profile and play humble guy. There will be a barrage of human rights accusations, and with him being a human idol, a demigod, he wants to cover himself."
One month ago, President George W. Bush signed into law the North Korean Human Rights Act, which provides funding for refugees and for increased Korean-language radio broadcasting into North Korea.
Norbert Vollertsen, a German human rights advocate, read by telephone from Seoul Wednesday an e-mail from a foreign aid worker in Pyongang: "Since the beginning of August, there is removal of official portraits of Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang and all over the countryside in public places, but not everywhere."
In Washington, North Korea watchers said they believed that Kim's hold on power is secure.
"There are no indications of political problems within the regime that might be linked to this development," said Kenneth Quinones, a retired US diplomat who met Saturday with North Korea's envoy to the UN. "My guess is that Kim Jong-il may be setting the stage to name a successor. He does not want people to feel obligated to hang yet a third picture near his and his dad's."