North Korea has denied reports that portraits of its unpredictable leader have been removed from some public spaces. The reported removals have sparked speculation about changes in the power structure of North Korea's Stalinist government.

An official of North Korea's foreign ministry, Ri Gyong Son, labeled stories about disappearing pictures of leader Kim Jong Il as "groundless fabrications."

Mr. Ri was quoted on Friday by China's official Xinhua News Agency. According to Xinhua, Mr. Ri insisted Mr. Kim's revered status in North Korea was unchanged.

The statement came in response to speculation that a possible power struggle or some other, unexplained change in Mr. Kim's status was under way in Pyongyang.

Earlier this week reports surfaced that North Korea was taking down a number of the ubiquitous public portraits of the Stalinist leader.

North Korea's tightly controlled news media also failed to refer to Mr. Kim by the honorific title of "Dear Leader" in a recent story, although diplomats and analysts have pointed out that this term is not always used in official news reports.

Nevertheless, any change in the secretive state's official treatment of Mr. Kim is highly unusual and possibly significant, and is bound to raise speculation in the absence of hard information.

The U.S. State Department - at least publicly - is downplaying the significance of the recent reports. State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli addressed the issue briefly on Thursday.

"Quite frankly, we haven't seen really anything going on in North Korea to raise alarm bells here."

The speculation comes as the United States and North Korea's Asian neighbors renew efforts to engage Pyongyang in a fresh round of nuclear disarmament talks.

Richard Baker, a political analyst at the East-West Center in Hawaii, says if North Korea is experiencing some sort of internal power struggle, the status and direction of those negotiations could change significantly.

"Does this indicate that there is a split over whether to really pursue the negotiations? There are vast numbers of possibilities and we need to watch because it so directly affects the six-party talks."

Mr. Baker, like other analysts, says it is possible Kim Jong Il has orchestrated the political changes himself. An unnamed North Korean diplomat who recently defected to the South told the Korea Times Mr. Kim ordered the portraits removed last year.

Mr. Kim, like his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, is the object of an all-pervasive personality cult.