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's not only nursing the ailing leader but also is signing official documents on his behalf.
Experts believe 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 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 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, reportedly suffered a stroke last month and is recuperating following emergency brain surgery — though North Korean officials deny the communist 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. Late 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 — 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 North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
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.
"If Kim Jong Il can't communicate with others, her role will be larger," said Kang Jung-mo, a North Korea expert 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 the leader's secretary since the 1980s.
Furthering the intrigue, Kim's late wife, Ko Yong Hi, — mother of his two younger sons — hand-picked 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.
Official information is scarce about North Korea, a country where the regime modifies history — including the year and location of Kim's birth — to suit Kim dynasty lore.
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 fragmentary and difficult to verify, experts say.
One South Korean intelligence officer said agents are keeping a close eye on traffic about Kim Ok, including indications 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.
Kim's circle of advisers likely includes military and ruling Workers' Party officials, said Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Paik noted the North's five top government organs — the National Defense Commission, the Korean Workers' Party Central Committee, the Korean Workers' Party Central Military Commission, the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly and the Cabinet — all have pledged their loyalty.
All five sent messages on the 60th anniversary of North Korea's birth praising Kim as a "matchless patriot and an unparalleled great man who has led our republic along the road to victory and glory."
Top officials typically do not offer such effusive congratulations for the North Korean anniversary, and the gesture appears to be an overt pledge that Kim can count on their backing, experts said.
When Kim Jong Il dies, it may be days, weeks — or even months — before the public knows, Noland said. "Then, figuring out who is running the country could take months if not a year."
On Wednesday, South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo ordered the government to stop leaking intelligence about Kim, saying the rampant speculation could end up provoking Pyongyang.
"But we speculate because the North Korean government makes its living depriving outsiders of information," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.