Pyongyang watchers are trying to divine what Ko's death might mean for the leadership of North Korea. Some observers believe her eldest son, Kim Jong Chol, in his early 20s, is the strongest contender to succeed his father, who himself inherited the job of paramount leader—although her youngest son, Kim Jong Woon, is rumored to be his father's favorite. The only other known contender is 33-year-old Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il's son by another union, but he's believed to have been in the doghouse since 2001 when he was caught trying to visit Disneyland by entering Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport. The question now is whether Ko's death might dent her children's succession chances and improve the odds that Kim Jong Nam will reclaim his spot as No. 1 son. In the meantime, it's anyone's guess what impact Ko's death might have on Kim Jong Il. According to a memoir by a former sushi chef in the Dear Leader's household, Kim fell into a severe depression while Ko was being treated in France for cancer a decade ago. As the international community has learned through bitter experience, dealing with Kim when he's on an even keel is hard enough.
She was a stunningly beautiful dancer who caught the eye of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and became his favorite companion. But as with much of the internal workings of the world's most secretive regime, little else is known about Ko Young Hee—not even whether she and Kim were ever married. Now, South Korean authorities are scrambling to decipher rumors that Ko has died—either of breast cancer following treatment in Paris or by succumbing to injuries sustained in a car accident last year. Seoul has learned that she was seriously ill, according to a source close to government officials working on the case, and that North Korea recently imported an expensive coffin from France. "The government is trying to confirm various possibilities," is all a spokesperson for South Korea's Unification Ministry would say.