South Korean officials say that Kim appears to have recovered, and has been making a busy tour of factories, farming collectives and military units around the country.

But outside observers are closely watching the election for signs of who will make up North Korea's ruling elite.

Possible successor

Kim Jong Un, Kim's 26-year-old son, is expected to run for parliament in what analysts say would be a strong sign he is being groomed to inherit power from his father.

Power in North Korea

Supreme people's assembly
The parliament, and officially the highest body of sovereign power. It can revise the constitution, approve the budget and make appoint officials.

National defence commission
The eight-member body officially comes under the assembly, but in reality it is the highest point of power in North Korea. It is headed by Kim Jong Il, the president, and controls the Ministry of People's Armed Forces.

Workers' Party of Korea
Founded in 1945, the North's communist party has led the state since its formation, but decades of economic difficulties have led to a decline in the party's power. It has not met formally since the early 1990s.

The cabinet
Made up of 37 minister-level officials, the cabinet is the top administrative and main economic policy-making body. It was restored by a constitutional amendment in 1998 having been scrapped in 1972.

A parliamentary seat would be the son's political debut, but Bertil Lintner, a political analyst based in Thailand, warned that talk about Kim Jong Un as a potential successor was only speculation.

"It's just a rumour and it's important to remember that the North Korean leader has three sons," he told Al Jazeera.

"If North Korea was to follow its Confucion traditions, it would be the eldest son not [Kim Jong Un] the youngest who would succeed his father. But anything is possible in North Korea," he said.

"The three sons are very different from their father ... all three of them were educated at private boarding schools in Switzerland and speak several European languages. Their outlook is probably a bit different from that of the older generation.

"But real power will not be in their hands for years to come because the most important organ of power in North Korea is the national defence commission, and that is made up of very old military officers - veterans of the Korean war in the 1950s."

Voters in North Korea's polls elect representatives to five-year terms in the Supreme People's Assembly, which meets several times a year to rubber-stamp bills.

Officially the vote is secret, but reports suggest this is not the case as to vote against a candidate, voters go to a special booth to cross out the name, making it obvious who is doing so.

Military concerns

Assembly elections are largely a formality since candidates are widely believed to be hand-picked by Kim and the ruling Workers' Party.

Only one candidate runs in each constituency and defectors say opposing a candidate is unthinkable.

The polls come as the isolated North faces off against the United States and regional powers over its refusal to fully verify its past nuclear activities and an alleged plan to test-fire a long-range missile.

North Korea has also warned South Korea and the US not to hold upcoming joint military drills that it claims are preparations for an attack on the North, and has threatened South Korean passenger jets flying near its airspace if the exercises go ahead as planned.

Several airlines have rerouted their flights to steer clear of North Korean airspace.