By JASPER BECKER in SEOUL
When a retired North Korean dancing girl crashed her Mercedes in Pyongyang a month ago, not a peep was heard from the world's most isolated Stalinist state about the scale of the tragedy to have befallen its paranoid leader Kim Jong Il.
Only yesterday, did it emerge that the 50-year old woman who suffered severe head injuries and is now in a critical condition is the wife of the dictator Mr Kim and mother of his heir apparent. Until recently few had even known of Ko Yong-Hi's existence.
She is not the 61-year-old dictator's "official wife". But clues gathered by North Korea watchers - including the fact that instructions have been issued to call her "the beloved mother" lend weight to reports that her eldest son, Kim Jong Chul, 22, is in line to succeed Mr Kim. If the regime survives, that is.
Even as it struggles to extricate itself from the Iraqi quagmire the United States is turning up the pressure for "regime change" in Pyongyang. There is evidence that the personality cult that surrounds Mr Kim is teetering close to collapse.
International food aid has been cut off on US orders, and the country may soon see the famine conditions of a few years ago when three million people died of hunger and disease.
The crisis started to deepen a year ago when Kim Jong Il admitted running two covert nuclear weapons programmes, contravening a string of international agreements.
Under US pressure, China, Pyongyang's closest ally is putting pressure on the North and it has now reportedly sent 150,000 troops to the border.
When the United States attacked Iraq, Mr Kim, according to Korean sources, feared he would be the next target and defectors in Seoul say he fled to Russia in an armoured train. Certainly he disappeared from public view for several months.
But just last week, North Korea again set off international alarm bells by announcing that it had processed enough plutonium from 8,000 spent fuel rods to make up to six atomic bombs.
Yesterday, the Japanese daily newspaper Sankei Shimbun shed a chink of light on the lurid private life of the man behind the nuclear threat. It quoted a "Korean Peninsula source" for its report on Ms Ko's road accident, but had no other details.
Since the latest nuclear standoff erupted, growing numbers of high-ranking North Koreans have fled to the South including Mr Kim's cook, his bodyguard and his hairdresser.
All have revealed astonishing details of a bizarre and feudal regime run as the private kingdom of Mr Kim. Kim Jong Il's younger sister, runs the family's businesses which include gold, zinc and anthracite mining and the smuggling of opium, heroin and amphetamines.
The CIA estimates that the family is worth £s;2.4bn apparently managed by a Swiss bank. This wealth enables Mr Kim to lead the life of a leisured aristocrat with thoroughbred horses, speed boats, racing cars, a private pool in his residence and a cellar of vintage French wines and Hennessy Cognac plus a library with 16, 000 films and a multinational team of personal chefs.
The most revealing stories have come from relatives of Sung Hae Rim, the former movie actress and a former wife. They reveal Mr Kim to be a man once tortured by romantic passion who later turned into a sex and food obsessed gourmet.
Sung Hae Rim was a glamorous starlet when she met the portly potentate in 1970, a time when he was obsessed with films. Their love affair was kept secret for 20 years because she was the daughter of a wealthy South Korean landlord.
Kim Jong Nam, the actress's son by Mr Kim was previously believed to have been the anointed heir to the leadership. His strange upbringing is described by his cousin Lee Nam-ok who at 13 was called to Kim Jong Il's official residence to serve as the sole friend of Jong-nam, then 8.
"We sometimes went around the city in a chauffeur-driven Benz but we were not allowed out of the car," Nak-ok said in an interview some years ago.
They were restricted to a huge playroom stocked with every possible toy, book and film. Jong Nam's favourite bed time reading was Anne of Green Gables. At the age of 10, Jong Nam was packed off to study at an international school in Geneva.
Sung Hae Rim herself gradually became terrified by Kim Jong Il's fits of rage and she fled to Moscow where she received treatment for depression, finally dying there in 2002.
When he returned from school in Geneva, Jong Nam was given a job in the secret police, and turns up in defector's accounts as heading a team which carried out a purge in 1996 in which dozens of people were executed for running unauthorised trading businesses.
In 2001, he was arrested in Japan after he and his entourage were discovered en route to Disneyland travelling on Dominican Republic passports. After the incident in Japan, he fell out of favour and Kim Jong Il is now thought to favour the elder of Ko Yong-Hi's two sons.
Kim Jong Chul, like his half-brother also studied in Switzerland where he lived under the assumed identity of the son of the driver and cleaning woman at the North Korean embassy. He now works in the party's Department of Agitation and Propaganda.
Little is known about Ms Ko, other than that she is the daughter of parents who left Japan in the 1960s, lured by the promise of enjoying Mr Kim's socialist paradise.
Ms Ko reportedly caught Mr Kim's eye as one of 2,000 girls employed in the dictator's "pleasure groups". She was a dancer in the Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang. Each "pleasure group" is composed of three teams - a "satisfaction team", which performs sexual services; a "happiness team," which provides massage and a "dancing and singing team". These teams, recruited from girls' high schools undergo a six-month training course before they are assigned to one of the dictator's 32 villas and palaces until the age of 25.
Reports filtering out early last month suggested that Ms Ko, had recently become obsessed about raising her profile into that of a national icon, on a similar footing to Kim Jong Il's revolutionary fighter mother. Before the accident she had begun styling herself the "Mother of Pyongyang" and insisted the state media broadcast propaganda about her.
According to a bodyguard to the regime who defected: "The National Security Department warns that anyone who criticises the 'Mother of Pyongyang' will be strictly punished as a political criminal."
There have been intriguing hints of a looming power struggle. One North Korea watcher in Seoul said: "To make her second son Jong-woon the successor, Mr Ko has ordered the Workers Party and high officials to call Jong-woon the 'Morning Star King.'"
Yu Suk-ryul at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security think tank in Seoul said yesterday that the North Korean dictator deliberately maintained a veil of secrecy around his dynasty.
"His royal families are hidden in a veil as a way of worshipping the Kim Jong-Il family."