Ailing North Korean leader gives woman clout

Associated Press/ September 18, 2008

Seoul, South Korea - 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 signing official documents on his behalf.

Experts say the communist leader is retaining a firm grip on power, running the nation from his bed with the help of military and Communist Party chiefs. But they are not discounting the role of the woman whom some view 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 Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "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, suffered a stroke last month and is recuperating following emergency brain surgery - though North Korean officials deny that Kim, 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. The nation's late founder, Kim Il Sung, engineered a cult of personality that encompassed him and his son. It 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 - known to have diabetes and heart disease - remains bedridden, the greater the likelihood of a power vacuum, analysts say.

And Kim Ok may be poised to fill any void. Experts speculate the North Korean leader's dependence on her during his illness may further bolster her political clout.

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 is believed to have accompanied the leader on his visit to China in 2006.

Kim Ok is said to be a pianist in her 40s who has been Kim Jong Il's secretary since the 1980s.

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