|North Korea: At home with the
By Jasper Becker
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.
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.
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.
fate had been kinder," she wrote, "they would've made a
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.
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."
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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