Kim has reportedly faced worsening health since he undertook a five-day trip to China last month [AFP]

North Korea's ruling party has delayed the start of a rare conference of the ruling Workers' Party (WPK) due to the health of Kim Jong-il, the country's leader, but his condition is not serious enough to cancel the meeting, according to South Korean television.

The Workers' Party conference, the first formal gathering of the state's secretive ruling elite in 30 years, was called to pick new leaderhip and possibly to anoint an heir, as the current leader's health deteriorates.

Kim, 68, has apparently faced worsening health since his five-day trip to China last month, but his condition was not bad enough to warrant a cancellation of the meeting, South Korea's YTN reported on Monday.

The South's National Intelligence Service said it could not confirm the YTN report and state media in North Korea has not mentioned delays facing the conference.

'Gruelling chore'

The Korean Central News Agency reported in June that the WPK would meet in early September to elect the party's "highest leadering body" and North Korea analysts thought Kim would use the opportunity to pass the reigns of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

"The party congress is likely to be a gruelling chore for Kim, who as party secretary will be expected to sit bolt upright in front of thousands of deputies and TV cameras at least for five hours a day and probably stand up while delivering one of the interminable speeches beloved of dictators everywhere," South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.

North and South Korea are still technically at war, having only signed an armistice in 1953 and regional powers are anxious to know what changes are afoot and who will command the nearly 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in the reserves.

Tensions on the peninsula, however, are showing signs of easing, with Seoul and Pyongyang making more conciliatory gestures towards each other.

The South announced on Monday its biggest aid package to its impoverished neighbour in more than two years.

The two agreed to meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesung on Friday to discuss a resumption of reunions of families separated by war.

The apparent thaw has prompted the start of shuttle diplomacy between regional nuclear envoys, fuelling speculation of a resumption in aid-for-disarmament talks.

Tensions rose to their highest level in years in March with the sinking of a South Korean warship, which Seoul and Washington blame on the North. Pyongyang denies any role.

Source: Agencies