North Korean secrets lie six feet
under By Michael Rank
She died a lonely death, and she lies in a
lonely grave. Once close to the center of power in
highly secretive North Korea, she died in a Moscow
hospital, spurned by her former lover, the Dear
Leader Kim Jong-il, after suffering from paranoia
Much remains mysterious
about Song Hye-rim, but a journalist from South
Korea's Yonhap news agency recently discovered her
grave in Moscow's Troyekurovskoye cemetery, where
she was buried under an assumed name after fleeing
Pyongyang following the breakdown of her
relationship with Kim Jong-il.
suffering from mental illness and fled for medical
treatment to Moscow, where she was admitted to
hospital as O
Sun Hui, the name under
which she was originally buried.
gravestone now bears her real name, as well as her
dates of birth and death - January 24, 1937-May
18, 2002 - and, on the other side of the headstone
are inscribed the words "mother of Kim Jong Nam".
It's not known if her son has ever visited
his mother's grave, but Kim Jong-nam is certainly
the black sheep of the family. The oldest son of
Kim Jong-il was born in 1971 and was at one time
his heir apparent, but he was disgraced when he
was barred from Narita airport in 2001 when he was
found to be travelling on a false passport on a
trip to Tokyo Disneyland.
He now lives in
Macau and southern China, and was recently quoted
by a Japanese journalist as saying he expects the
North Korean regime to fail because its new
leader, his half-brother Kim Jong-eun, is too
inexperienced. He said he had never even met his
all-powerful half-brother, who is aged about 28.
The South Korean-born Song Hye-rim was an
actress and a divorcee with a child when she
became Kim Jong-il's first mistress around 1970.
She is said to have entered Pyongyang Film Academy
in 1955, but left the following year to give birth
to a daughter. She later re-enrolled and
graduated, making her film debut in 1960.
Somewhat spookily, she is buried just 10
meters away from Stalin's son Vasily Dzhugashvili,
who died aged 40 in 1962.
When the Yonhap
reporter visited Song's grave in 2009 it was
decorated with a single carnation, left by - who
knows. "As you can see the grave has few
visitors," a cemetery official remarked.
Song was the first mistress of Kim
Jong-il, who died last December, and was five
years older than him. Her friend, Kim Young-soon,
has said that Kim Jong-il did not tell his father,
the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, that he was living
with a formerly married woman as that would have
caused a huge scandal.
Song's sister, Song
Hye-rang, managed to defect in Geneva in 1996,
bringing with her nothing but her medicines, a
volume of Chekhov short stories and her diary. She
has told how the Dear Leader, an ardent film buff,
was at first besotted with his movie star mistress
but his ardour later cooled, and his father
ordered him to marry a woman he never really
loved, although the marriage did not last long.
His next liaison was with Ko Yong-hui, a
Japanese-born ethnic Korean and a dancer, who was
the mother of North Korea's youthful new leader,
Kim Jong-eun. She is believed to have died in
Paris in 2004 and the Dear Leader replaced her
with his personal secretary, Kim Ok, who
reportedly accompanied him on a visit to China in
The ruling Kim family is enshrouded
in mystery and rumor, and what little we know for
reasonably sure is based largely on defectors'
accounts such as Song Hye-rang's autobiography and
an unpublished memoir by Kim Jong-il's
stepdaughter, the niece of Song Hye-rim, who
defected in 1992 after visiting her aunt in
hospital in Moscow.
The stepdaughter, Ri
(Li) Nam-ok, tells in her autobiography how the
then crown prince Kim Jong-nam was sent to school
in Switzerland, accompanied by his uncle, Jang
The young Kim was at first
reluctant to go, but "Jang Song-taek cajoled him,
'Come on, come with me, we will see lots of
strange and funny things. Let's go!' The thought
of spending time with his uncle must have pleased
him, and Jong-Nam consented."
So writes Ri
in her memoir, according to the respected North
Korea-watcher Selig S Harrison, who says that
although she originally intended it to be
published, she changed her mind and had
publication blocked through legal action in the
Jang stayed with Kim
Jong-nam in Switzerland for six months, returning
to Pyongyang in August, 1981, says Harrison.
Jang has emerged as a crucial figure since
the death of Kim Jong-il because he is reported to
be the mentor of the new leader, Kim Jong-eun.
Jang's stay in Switzerland was fairly
short and it occurred a long time ago, Harrison
notes, but he believes that it fits in with other
indications that he is reform-minded.
does Ri Nam-ok's reference to a visit to China by
Jang on behalf of Kim Jong-il in 1989. When the
subject of a visit by Ri to China came up, "My
father told us he had sent Uncle Jang there and he
had reported back that it 'should be seen'," she
is quoted as saying in her ghost-written memoir,
The Golden Cage.
further evidence for claiming that Jang is a
reformer, citing comments by the late Hwang
Chang-yop, former international secretary of the
Korean Workers' Party, and the most senior North
Korean official ever to defect.
met Hwang three times in Pyongyang, and twice more
after he defected to South Korea in 1998.
"Jang Song-taek is the smartest one there
[in Pyongyang], and he understands that change is
urgent and imperative," Hwang told Harrison. "He
has good relations with the army because three of
his brothers are generals. He's the best hope for
reform, but it won't be easy for him."
That is an understatement, but perhaps
there is hope that North Korea will launch
much-needed reforms to its sclerotic political and
economic system under its mysterious new leader.
Michael Rank is a London-based
journalist and translator. He graduated in Chinese
from Cambridge University and is a former Reuters
correspondent in Beijing. He visited Rason in
North Korea in 2010.
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