Seoul -- Badges depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, a key symbol of his personality cult, are disappearing from peoples' chests in the communist country.
South Korea's Unification Ministry confirmed that lapel badges of Kim are no longer being worn by North Koreans travelling from the Stalinist state to China on official business.
In the past, they wore either a badge portraying Kim or a similar badge portraying his father, the Stalinist state's founder Kim Il-Sung who died in 1994.
"North Koreans travelling to and from China who formerly wore the badge of either Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il on their chests, have stopped wearing the Kim Jong-Il badge," Unification Ministry spokeswoman Yang Jong-Hwa told AFP, citing an internal report from the ministry's information analysis bureau.
"They are wearing only the Kim Il-Sung badge."
Ten years after his death the elder Kim is still revered in North Korea where he is frequently described as president for eternity.
But the pervasive personality cult built around his son appears to be shrinking.
Reports of the disappearing lapel badges follow recent confirmation that Kim Jong-Il's portraits have vanished from key sites visited by foreigners in Pyongyang.
The Unification Ministry is still analyzing the nature and significance of these changes, Yang said.
Media reports in South Korea said the phasing-out of the Kim Jong-Il badges was widespread and affected business people, diplomats and other North Koreans who come into contact with foreigners.
"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," an unnamed Seoul official told the Seoul-based JoongAng Ilbo.
The official said Kim Jong-Il himself ordered the Mansudae Art Studio, the North's main producer of propaganda materials, to stop manufacturing his badges late last year.
He said North Koreans were told to take off their Kim Jong-Il badges for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's death in July this year.
The apparent downsizing of the Kim cult of personality has led to speculation that changes may be taking place in the power structure of the tightly controlled communist country.
But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei on Wednesday said the Stalinist state was stable and big changes were not imminent.
"The politics are stable, the economy is developing and the leaders are thinking seriously about economic reform," Wu Dawei told a briefing in Beijing as he described his September visit to Pyongyang.
Choson Sinbo, run by the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, said the measures reflected the "noble will of General Kim Jong-Il who wants to hold up only President Kim Il-Sung aloft."
Analysts said it it is virtually impossible to confirm exactly what is going on inside the secretive nation.
Kim's portraits have long been ubiquitous in homes, offices and public buildings across North Korea, where they have hung prominently beside a picture of his late father.
The junior Kim took power when his father, who founded the hermit nation, died in July, 1994.