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North Korea: At home with the Kims
By Jasper Becker

SEOUL - The lurid private life of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-il, has taken a turn for the worse after one of his wives, ex-dancing girl Kim Yong-hee, also known as the nation's "beloved mother", crashed her Mercedes and suffered severe head injuries.

The Japanese daily Sankei Shimbum says the accident, which happened last month, left the 50-year-old hospitalized in critical condition. Until recently no one had even known of her existence, but now it seems her eldest son, Kim Jong-choi, may be the heir apparent.

This is just one of many details emerging about the strange family life of North Korea's Dear Leader. So many members from court circles have fled the impoverished country that the memoirs of everyone including Kim Jong-il's cook, bodyguard and hairdresser can be found in Seoul bookshops. The most revealing are by relatives of his first wife, Sung Hae-rim, which detail an unexpected tale of romantic passion. She was a glamorous starlet when she met the portly potentate in 1970, a time when he was obsessed with films.

Kim had to keep their affair secret because she was the daughter of a wealthy South Korean landlord, persecuted in the North as belonging to a "hostile class". Sung's sister, Sung Hae-rang, wrote in her autobiography The Wisteria House how her elder sister had pitied Kim Jong-il, who like her had grown up motherless.

"If only fate had been kinder," she wrote, "they would've made a great couple."

But North Korea's ruler, Kim Il-sung, forced his eldest son to marry a more suitable girl, Kim Young-sook, the daughter of a top general, who produced a daughter but never appeared in public. After Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, the relationship emerged into the open and the grandson, Kim Jong-nam, began to be groomed for succession.

His odd upbringing is described in turn by Lee Nam-ok, the daughter of Sung Hae-rang. At 13, she was called to Kim Jong-il's official residence to serve as the sole friend of Jong-nam, then eight years old. Lee, who now lives in Paris with the son of a French intelligence officer, described their lonely life in a 1998 interview. They were never allowed to go outside except for shopping trips to Japan or Helsinki.

"We sometimes went around the city in a chauffeur-driven Benz but we were not allowed to get out of the car," she said. They stayed in a huge playroom stocked with every possible toy, book and film. Jong-nam's favorite bedtime reading was Anne of Green Gables.

"Even in the West I never saw such a huge collection of the latest toys," she said.

When Jong-nam became fond of a famous South Korean comedian, his father ordered officials to search the country and find a lookalike. He was then trained to deliver the act.

"Jong-nam, who was only eight at the time, knew the man was a fake," Lee wrote. "He said, 'I know this isn't real' - then stormed off to his room."

When Jong-nam reached 10, his father sent him to study at an international school in Geneva. In 1982, his fellow student and Lee Nam-ok's brother, Lee Il-nam, disappeared in Geneva when at the age of 21 and resurfaced in Seoul 10 years later. After Il-nam published a book on his life in Pyongyang, unknown assailants shot him dead in the hallway of his apartment building in 1997.

In 1992 Lee Nam-ok also fled, followed by her mother, who had been living at the Kim dynasty's villa in Geneva. Meanwhile, Sung Hae-rim herself gradually became terrified of Kim Jong-il's fits of rage and fled to Moscow, where she received treatment for depression. She died there last year, still in her mid-60s, and is buried there.

Kim Jong-nam was given a job in the secret police and turns up in defectors' accounts as heading a team that carried out a purge in Hyesan in 1996 in which 40 people were executed for running private trading businesses.

Then in 2001, Japanese police arrested Jong-nam and his entourage at Narita Airport, traveling on Dominican Republic passports. He explained that he just wanted to see Disneyland, but the Japanese press later described his visits to massage parlors and the unflattering judgments made by the hostess who entertained him. Japanese authorities also revealed that Jong-nam had toured Japan on two previous occasions starting in 1995, always using forged passports (see Fat Bear: No meeting Mickey Mouse any time soon, May 11, 2001). 

By this time, Kim Jong-nam was leading a government committee overseeing a project to develop a computer software export industry in Pyongyang, but after the incident in Japan, he fell out of favor.

The new crown prince is said to be the 22-year-old son of the injured Kim Yong-hee. She was a dancer in the Mansudae Art Troupe and the daughter of parents who left Japan in the 1960s lured by the promise of Kim's socialist paradise.

According to former bodyguard Kim Myong-chul, she caught his eye as one of the 2,000 girls employed in Kim Jong-il's "pleasure groups". 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".

A classified document issued by the Workers' Party titled "The Project to Guarantee Longevity of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader is the Sacred Duty of all Party Members and Party Committees" describes how the girls are recruited and trained.

Selection criteria are issued to every party branch, and at the beginning of the school term a local official visits every girls' senior high school in his area to select prospective candidates.

The top 100 are forwarded to Section 5 of the Organization Department, where one of 10 is chosen and given a medical examination. The list of the final 50 is sent to Kim Jong-il's Body Guard Bureau, which is staffed by orphans selected for their loyalty. Kim then examines the dossier and makes a final selection.

The new recruits then undergo a six-month training course before they are assigned to one of the 32 villas and palaces around the country, which reportedly cost US$2.5 billion. Many are sent overseas for the last polishing and then, if they pass muster, the girls are made first lieutenants of the Body Guard and assigned to a villa where they stay until they are 25.

Kim Jong-choi also studied in Switzerland, living 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, and Korea watchers guessed he had become crown prince when the Propaganda Department began to glorify his mother as "a respected mother" and "a loyal subject".

However, Kim Jong-il's younger sister, Kim Kyung-hee, often referred to as the "First Lady", may have the final say. She is married to Chang Song-taek, a top member of the National Defense Commission, the country's most powerful governing body. Three of his brothers also sit on it and between them they control the army, the capital garrison and the secret police.

As First Lady, Kim Kyung-hee runs the family's businesses, which include gold, zinc and anthracite mining operations and the smuggling of opium, heroin and amphetamines. The US Central Intelligence Agency estimates that the family is worth $4 billion, apparently managed by a Swiss bank.

This wealth enables Kim Jong-il, now 61, to lead the life of a leisured aristocrat, with a stable of thoroughbred horses, speedboats, 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.

Jasper Becker is an independent journalist covering China and Korea. He is the author of two books, Hungry Ghosts and The Chinese. He has reported on Chinese affairs for a wide variety of international publications. Hungry Ghosts was the winner of the Dutch PIOOM award for human rights.

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Oct 11, 2003

Cook and tell: Another chef spills the beans
(Jul 2, '03)

The Dear Leader, demystified
(Jun 24, '03)

Soap, sleeze: North Korea's first family (Mar 2, '02)


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