In North Korea, portraits of Kim Jong Il have been taken down in what may signal significant and possibly far-reaching changes in the Stalinist leader's personality cult. The apparent downgrading of Mr. Kim's public image has analysts wondering who has ordered the changes, and why, and whether they mean anything.

The first clue that Kim Jong Il was experiencing something of a public makeover came when scores of his iconic portraits began disappearing from public walls in the North Korean capital in recent months.

The removal of the photos was first reported early this week, although one Westerner with contacts inside the reclusive Stalinist state, says the portraits began disappearing as long ago as August.

On Wednesday, a report in the official news media referred to Mr. Kim without including his title "Dear Leader."

Mr. Kim's father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, has been accorded god-like status in the country, and is always referred to as the "Great Leader." When Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, became heir apparent, the younger Kim was given the title "Dear Leader."

The title has invariably been used in public pronouncements and reports in the tightly controlled news media. But a news report this week referred to Mr. Kim only by his official titles as head of the government and military, and omitted the slavish reference to "our Dear Leader."

The changes have prompted a flurry of speculation by analysts around the world. Do they indicate any changes in Pyongyang, and if so, what?

Political Scientist Richard Baker works for the East-West Center in Hawaii.

"In a communist country this is not a meaningless event," he said. "This means something, and the question now has to be, what does it mean, has the army made a move, is there a squabble in the family, what's been happening within the party?"

Mr. Baker also notes that with the United States and North Korea still squaring off over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, the debate is not merely academic.

It is possible, he says, that internal dissension over Mr. Kim's refusal to accept U.S. demands that he give up his nuclear arsenal has led to so-far unexplained changes to the power structure in Pyongyang.

Some Korea experts say it is possible Mr. Kim himself has ordered the changes. They say such a scenario would suggest Mr. Kim remains in control, and has decided for unknown reasons to weaken his cult of personality.

Asked to comment on the situation Wednesday, U.S. State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli said it was impossible to know which analysis is correct.

"Pick which analyst you want to follow," he said. "I'm not endorsing one view or the other. I don't think we've got a considered view on this subject to share with you."

But the East-West Center's Richard Baker contends that two things are clear: one, this is a significant development; and two, Kim Jong Il has either lost or given up an important tool in his political arsenal.