One of the most powerful figures in North Korea, the aunt of leader Kim Jong-un, is believed to be seriously ill and possibly in a hospital in Singapore, South Korean media reported yesterday.
Persistent rumours that Kim Kyong-hui, the 66-year-old sister of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, is unwell were fuelled by her non-attendance at a rare session of the North's parliament on Tuesday.
South Korean newspapers, citing Seoul government sources and diplomatic sources in Beijing, said Kim was overseas seeking medical treatment.
"I was informed that Kim arrived in Singapore with a small number of bodyguards," the JoongAng Ilbo quoted one source familiar with North Korean affairs as saying.
"It seems that she was admitted to hospital and is still undergoing treatment," the source said.
South Korea's unification ministry, which handles cross-border relations, declined to confirm the reports.
Prominent North Korean officials are believed to have sought medical treatment in Singapore in the past.
Recent official photos of Kim have shown her looking gaunt, having apparently lost a significant amount of weight.
Along with her husband Jang Song-thaek, Kim is thought to have played a crucial rule in helping her nephew Kim Jong-un cement his hold over the leadership after his father died in December.
Jang, a vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission, is widely seen as No2 in the North Korean hierarchy and observers say the couple are the real power behind the throne in Pyongyang.
Kim Kyong-hui has been at the centre of power for almost 40 years and serves as secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea central committee.
She temporarily disappeared from the scene in 2003 when her husband was apparently purged, but came back in 2009 when Kim Jong-il reportedly suffered a stroke, accompanying him to official events.
She was made a four-star general along with Kim Jong-un in September 2010.