|Kim Ok, former secretary for Kim Jong Il, seen in a file photo from 2000, may be taking on a larger role in North Korea. (US Department of Defense via Associated Press)|
In N. Korea, consort may play key role
Former secretary could be proxy for ailing Kim Jong Il
SEOUL - Kim Jong Il's companion and former secretary is emerging as a key player in the communist nation after the autocratic leader's stroke.
South Korean officials are keeping a close eye on Kim Ok amid some intelligence reports that she is not only nursing the ailing leader but also is signing official documents on his behalf.
Experts believe the leader is retaining a firm grip on power, running the nation from his bed with the help of military and communist party chiefs in line with the nation's "songun," or military first, policy. But they are not discounting the role of the woman who is seen by some as the de facto first lady.
"She is the closest person personally to Kim Jong Il," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. "In some ways, she's the one guarding the bedroom or hospital door. She would be in a position to convey his preferences."
Kim, 66, reportedly suffered a stroke last month and is recuperating following emergency brain surgery - though North Korean officials deny the leader, who was last seen in public more than a month ago, is ill.
The notoriously secretive nation bars ordinary citizens from Web access and most cannot make international phone calls. North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, engineered a cult of personality that encompassed himself and his son, and which tolerates no criticism or opposition.
Kim Jong Il was groomed for 20 years to take over as leader, finally assuming the mantle after his father's death in 1994 in the communist world's first hereditary transfer of power. He has three sons - Jong Nam, Jong Chul, and Jong Un - but does not appear to have anointed any of them as his heir-apparent.
The longer Kim, who is known to have diabetes and heart disease, remains bedridden, the greater the likelihood of a power vacuum, analysts say.
"If his health problem prolongs, some internal feuding for power will likely occur," said Kang Sung-yoon, a specialist on North Korea at Seoul's Dongguk University.
And Kim Ok might be poised to fill any void. Analysts speculate the North Korean leader's dependence on her during his illness may further bolster her political clout.
"If Kim Jong Il can't communicate with others, her role will be larger," said Kang Jung-mo, a specialist on North Korea at Kyung Hee University.
Little is known about her. Kim Jong Il is believed to have had three wives before taking Kim Ok as his consort several years ago. She reportedly accompanied the leader on his secret visit to China in 2006.
She is said to be a pianist in her 40s who has served as his secretary since the 1980s. Furthering the intrigue, Kim's late wife, Ko Yong Hi handpicked Kim Ok to replace her when she was dying of cancer, according to South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
It wouldn't be the first time an Asian leader's companion has asserted herself. Mao Zedong's last wife, Jiang Qing, nicknamed "Madame Mao," wielded considerable power in China until her downfall after Mao's death in 1976. And Chiang Kai-shek's wife, Soong Mei-ling, rose to prominence in Taiwan in her husband's twilight years.
South Korean officials refuse to divulge their intelligence-gathering techniques but are known to rely heavily on so-called human intelligence, information gleaned from defectors, visiting dignitaries, aid workers, tourists, and others able to get into the world's most-isolated nation. Such information can be difficult to verify, experts say.
One South Korean intelligence officer said agents are watching for information about Kim Ok, including whether she is signing some official documents on his behalf. He spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with department policy.
He said top military officers are likely carrying out key functions, but that Kim Ok probably wields more power than any particular individual.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said it has some intelligence on Kim Ok but cannot confirm reports on her growing influence. The South's National Intelligence Service also said it could not confirm the reports.