Kim met Wang Jiarui, who heads the International Department of China's Communist Party, in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Wednesday, the Xinhua news agency said.

The agency did not elaborate on the state of Kim's health.

"These are the first photographs we have seen of Kim Jong-il with a leading international dignitary. We have seen pictures like this over the last couple of months but [in those pictures] Kim has been alone," Tony Cheng, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Beijing, said.

"This is the first time that there has been an independent corroborator - in this case, a leading light in the Chinese Communist party delivering best wishes for the lunar new year."

Despite the resumption of frequent reports on Kim's public activities in recent weeks, there are lingering doubts about his health.

"There is still very little evidence about what condition Kim is in," Cheng said.

"He does not look in the best of health, he looks rather frail. But he is smiling, so it seems predictions of his untimely demise are perhaps early."

Health speculation

The last prominent reception by Kim was in June last year when Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice-president, visited Pyongyang, according to South Korea's unification ministry.

The meeting with Wang comes as the North Korean military heads for elections to the Supreme People's Assembly on March 8, where Kim is expected to be reaffirmed as its supreme military leader.

In recent months North Korean state media have issued numerous reports and undated photos of Kim's visits to army units, factories and farms, showing him in padded coats, ski gloves and dark sunglasses.

The reports followed widespread speculation that Kim may still show the effects of the stroke.

Last week South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence sources, said Kim had picked Jong-un, the youngest of his three known sons, to succeed him, further fuelling speculations of his illness.

But there were conflicting reports naming either his youngest or oldest son to take over as leader, adding uncertainty to the succession issue.