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Death of Kim's consort: Dynastic implications
By David Scofield

North Korea is synonymous with death. The widely circulated news of Kim Jong-il's consort's death is important not in the circumstances of her demise, but in the questions of dynastic succession it has brought to the fore - who will inherit the mantle of despot in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? Kim Jong-il is 62.

Kim's appetite for exotic food and fine alcohol is surpassed only by his appetite for female flesh, an indulgence that led him to Koh Young-hee, formerly a dancer in one of Kim's many "pleasure teams", groups of stunningly attractive girls trained in providing for his every desire. Divided into three broad categories, the women provide "satisfaction", "happiness", and "dancing and singing". Koh was a member of the third group and became Kim's consort.

Born in Japan to wide-eyed idealists who left for the North Korean "workers' paradise" in the early 1960s, Koh became one of a 2,000-strong stable of young girls "fortunate" enough to be chosen to pleasure Kim. It was while she was dancing in one of the Kim family's 32 villas and palaces that the then junior Kim became enamored with Koh. Though they never formerly married (Kim already had a wife and mistress), they became very close and Kim fathered two sons with Koh: Kim Jong-chul, 23, and Kim Jong-woon, 21. Of course, by the time of her death, reportedly of cancer, Koh was no longer "the former dancer" but had been bestowed the titles "esteemed mother" and "great woman".

And then there's 'Fat Bear'
Kim Jong-il's eldest son is Kim Jong-nam, the offspring of previous mistress Sung Hye-lim, a former actress who died two years ago in a Moscow hospital, exiled and estranged from the leader. Jong-nam has been widely considered to be Kim's heir-apparent, though this is now far from certain. Some, such as the leader's former Japanese sushi chef, who has written about Kim under the pen name Kenji Fujimoto, observed him referring to Jong-nam as "too feminine", lacking the masculine character leadership requires, and indicating a preference for the youngest. But this raises other issues concerning Confucian roles - the youngest son assuming control ahead of the eldest would be a major, and potentially destabilizing, departure from Confucian ethos.

In the past Kim Jong-nam had been widely viewed as the obvious successor. He had the right familial rank, and there is little effeminate about Kim's portly son. North Korean defectors believe Jong-nam responsible for the Hyesan purge, a "removal" of 40 individuals involved in illegal trade during the height of the famine 1996. But his love of Disneyland proved to be his undoing.

In 2001, Kim Jong-nam and his entourage, bedecked in diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and toting Louis Vuitton bags, were detained at Narita airport, reportedly en route to Tokyo Disneyland. Kim had attempted to enter the country on a forged Dominican Republic passport, using the Chinese name Pang Xiong - Fat Bear. Subsequent investigations revealed that this was not his first foray into Japan. Apparently he entered the country at least three times in late 2000. Indeed, a hostess at the exclusive gentlemen's club Soapland in Tokyo's Yoshiwara district remembered Kim's US$350-per-hour visits. She also recalls a dragon tattoo on Kim's back - tattoos are a taboo in Confucian society as they are seen to be a desecration of the body. Still today in South Korea, men with tattoos usually are thought to be members of criminal gangs.

Kim Jong-il was livid. The eldest son had embarrassed the leader and Jong-nam's place near the top of the North Korean food chain and dynasty was - and is - in doubt. Jong-nam's whereabouts are not known. He was reported to be spending his days gambling in Macau, but some experts believe the family rift has been repaired, at least partially, and he is now said to be back in North Korea, perhaps working on national cyberprojects. Before his embarrassing transgressions, he guided the Korea Computing Center (KCC), a high-tech research center outside of Pyongyang described as "advanced" by Jim Hoare, the former charge d'affaires of the British Mission in North Korea and one of the few foreigners to have visited the complex. According to the KCC website, primary research areas include the development of Linux technology. In a world dominated by Bill Gates and Microsoft, North Korea is opting for open-source - perhaps there's hope for the reclusive nation yet.

And then there's the first lady
While the deceased Koh may be "esteemed mother", she isn't "first lady". That title is reserved for Kim's only surviving (that we know about anyway) sibling, his sister Kim Kyung-hee. Kim had a brother earlier in life, but the poor lad drowned in a pond on one of the Kim estates while, it's rumored, Kim Jong-il looked on. The leader is reported to be very close with both his sister and her 33-year-old son (his name is not known beyond North Korea), raising speculation about his potential role as leader of the moribund nation.

Many experts dismiss this possibility, though, as it would end the Kim dynastic line. Kim Jong-il's nephew's father is Chang Sung-taek, vice director of the ruling Korean Workers Party's organization and guidance department and, according to senior North Korean defector Hwang Jong-yup, the de facto No 2 man in North Korea. For years, Chang enjoyed the position closest to Kim, thanks in no small measure to his marriage to Kim's sister.

But defector testimony and South Korea-based analysts indicate that Chang and Kim Jong-il are not as close as they once were. Chang has been accused of corruption and abuse of power and is now said to be living under virtual house arrest. It has also been reported that Chang and Kim Kyung-hee have parted ways. If true, this could remove Chang from any handover script. His brothers, themselves senior members in the military, will likely be keeping their heads down, fearful of being detained, or purged, themselves.

Kim Kyung-hee's official title is head of the light-industry division of the Workers Party Economic Policy Audit Department. She is believed to have unfettered access to her brother Kim Jong-il. That she has a voice in future leadership decisions is well known, but she possesses something else as well, the keys to the family fortune. US Central Intelligence Agency reports put the Kim family's wealth at around $4 billion, held, it is believed, in Swiss bank accounts. Kim Kyung-hee is charged with managing the "Family's" (writer's emphasis) business, which include gold, zinc and anthracite mining operations and the manufacture, processing and distribution of of opium, heroin and amphetamines, as well as the proliferation of counterfeit currency and other nefarious enterprises. (North Korea's smuggling, according to recent British Broadcasting Corp reports, have employed the Real IRA among others to distribute near-perfect counterfeit copies of US currency notes around Britain and Europe.)

His sister's power goes beyond the management of this conduit for cash upon which Kim Jong-il relies to fund his expensive indulgences: she has the knowledge necessary to expose the intricate network that ensures Kim's wealth and power. This information would be invaluable to those governments concerned with the dictator's nuclear-weapons program and his disregard for human life - administrations that hope to bring about real change in North Korea through the removal of this system of dynastic despots.

With so much senseless death and suffering in North Korea, it's hard to be too concerned about the death of one like Koh. Scores of ordinary North Koreans perished from treatable ailments over the past year while the elite, such as Koh, secured the best treatment abroad, regardless of expense. The death of Kim Jong-il's favorite is noteworthy because it underscores the fragility of the succession and the potential for instability at the zenith of power in North Korea.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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Sep 2, 2004



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