North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's aunt Kim Kyong-hui, one of the young leader's main pillars of support, is said to be seriously ill. Kim Kyong-hui did not show up at the session of the Supreme People's Assembly on Tuesday, a senior South Korean government source said Thursday. "It's likely that her health has deteriorated."
There are rumors in the diplomatic community that she is in Singapore for emergency surgery. But the source denied this, saying the North Korean elite often visit Singapore for fun.
Another source said Kim Kyong-hui looked healthy at the opening of an amusement park in Pyongyang on July 25, but since then her health seems to have deteriorated.
Rumors about her ill health have been circulating since the early 2000s. She disappeared from public view for six years from September 2003, apparently due to alcoholism and depression in the wake of problems in her marriage to Jang Song-taek, widely seen as the North's eminence grise, and her daughter Kum-song's suicide in 2006. She returned to work in a party department in June 2009.
"Her health didn't improve much even after she returned to work in 2009, because she ruined it when she was young by drinking hard and leading an intemperate life," the senior government source said. "It's almost certain that she's suffering from a sore back and bad knees."
Kim disappeared intermittently from public view. She went to Russia for treatment of her back from June to August last year and showed up wearing sneakers at a public event in September last year.
A South Korean security official said, "As a brand-name freak, Kim Kyong-hui has keen interest in fashion and prefers high heels. The fact that she wore sneakers suggests her knees are very bad."
She was seen being helped by a guard when she was descending the stairs at the amusement park on July 25.
According to doctors who studied recent photos, she is aging rapidly. She had a rather plump face and round jaw line when she visited a foodstuff factory in Sariwon, South Hwanghae Province in January last year, but her neck looked scrawny at a banquet marking the 52nd anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il's "songun" or military-first doctrine on Aug. 25.
Her father, nation founder Kim Il-sung, and elder brother Kim Jong-il are said to have suffered from diabetes since they were in their 40s. A person with a family history of diabetes is about twice as likely to get diabetes as one without.
In addition, extreme stress since Kim Jong-il's death late last year may have accelerated the aging process.
Kim Kyong-hui has been playing the role of guardian for Kim Jong-un, who is 28, alongside her husband. Pundits say her death could throw the regime into profound disarray.