South Korean officials are trying to confirm reports that the most influential woman in North Korea has died. Ko Young Hee, is sometimes referred to as the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Reports have been circulating for several days among intelligence officials and journalists in Asia that Ko Young Hee had died from breast cancer in Pyongyang after returning home from a Paris hospital.
The Korean Broadcasting System in Seoul has also reported the death, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Beijing.
Government officials in South Korea on Friday said they are trying to confirm the reports.
The 52-year-old woman is idolized in North Korea as the communist state's "revered mother." Ms. Ko is believed to be the closest of several woman to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, although Korea experts say it is not clear if Mr. Kim has ever officially married any of them. North Korea's government and the state-controlled media are not known for releasing information about Mr. Kim's family. Mr. Kim and Ms. Ko are not known to have ever appeared together in public.
Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, James Lilley, says her death could be used as an excuse by North Korea to postpone the six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons development.
"My own sense is they've got a game plan on dealing with the United States and her death might give them a convenient excuse to go into mourning - if it's true - and then just postpone the whole thing until after the American elections.... But in and of itself, it wouldn't change anything," he said.
Ambassador Lilley, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also says Ms. Ko's death could give Pyongyang an excuse to tone down its harsh rhetoric directed at the United States.
Analysts say Ms. Ko, a former dancer and the daughter of a Korean immigrant to Japan, had been pushing one of her sons as the successor to the 62-year-old Kim. Mr. Kim inherited his post from his father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Ms. Ko's sons are 23-year-old Kim Jong Chul and 19-year-old Kim Jong Woong.
The North Korean leader's eldest son, 33-year-old Kim Jong Nam, reportedly does not enjoy a close relationship with his father. Analysts say he may have fallen out of contention to succeed his father after he was forced into exile for a period after being detained entering Japan trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Kim Jong Nam's mother, Sung Hae Rim, is believed to have died in a Moscow hospital two years ago.