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The many family secrets of Kim Jong-Il

SEOUL - A flurry of recent reports about Kim Jong-Il's mistress has rekindled interest in the many mysteries about his family.

Portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang.() AFP/File/Shingo Ito
An unconfirmed report in Japan's Sankei newspaper stated that Kim Jong-Il's mistress, Ko Young-Hee, had an operation following an automobile accident in Pyongyang. But according to reports in Russian papers, it was unlikely Ko had any such accident because not many cars are on the streets in the North's capital city to begin with.

All this gives rise to speculation that a power struggle is underway between those backing Ko's son, Jung-Woo, and others supporting Jung-Chul as Kim's successor.

In a recently published biography of Kim Jong-Il, author Sohn Gwang-Joo, a research fellow at the Institute of Unification Policy in Seoul, said many things told about Kim are wrong. Sohn has interviewed more than 50 North Korean defectors, including Hwang Jang-Yop, who is scheduled to visit the United States later this month, and some of Kim's former aides.

Officially, Kim Jong-Il was born February 16, 1942 at Mt. Paekdu (Jangbeishan in Chinese). Scholars studying North Korea believe he was born near Khabarovsk, Russia and say North Korea fabricated the birth story to mystify Kim's birth. North Korean publications declare on the day of his birth there were thunderstorms and that a rainbow appeared, even though it was winter. Sohn said in the biography that Kim was actually born in 1941 in Russia, not 1942.

Kim had a younger brother, but he drowned at the age of four while playing with Kim beside the pond in his father's mansion. His sister, Kyung-Hee, is the only surviving direct family member.

Kim's mother, Kim Jung-Sook, died allegedly giving birth to a fourth baby, if it survived. She was only 36. Kim was brought up by nannies. Perhaps because of this, he missed his mother dearly. One anecdote reveals how much he missed and loved his dead mother. According to the story, in 1987 the defense minister of Guinea was in Pyongyang for a medical treatment. Tipped off beforehand by the North Korean ambassador to that country, the minister told Kim how much he had came to respect Kim Jung-Sook after having read about her resistance struggle during the Japanese occupation.

Kim immediately ordered his staff to move the minister to the state guesthouse from a hotel he had been put in. He also let his guest ride on a special train that only he and his father had used. Analysts believe that one reason why Kim fell in love with and married Sung Hye-Rim, even though she was five years older, was because she looked surprisingly like his mother.

Kim met the pretty South Korean-born actress in 1968 while he was overseeing movie productions. He fell in love with her and began to live with her the following year. They had a son, Jung-Nam. Sung Hye-Rim's older sister, Hye-Rang, and her mother raised the boy. The affair was kept a top secret. As a matter of fact, it was such a tightly kept secret that his father, Kim Il-Sung, died without learning that he had an illegitimate grandson.

It became known only after Sung Hye-Rang fled to the West in 1996 and her son Lee Han-Young (his real name was Rhee Il-Nam), who had defected to Seoul earlier wrote about it in a book. Lee's defection was never reported in the press and he was assassinated in 1997, even though he had had face-altering surgery and was using a different name. Based on forensics, a South Korean investigation concluded that a North Korean commando team was responsible for the murder.

Not knowing Kim had a secret wife, his father urged him to marry. Kim officially married Kim Young-Sook in 1973. They had a daughter, Sul-Song, but no love seems to have been lost between them.

In 1976, Kim took on a mistress, Koh Young-Hee. She was a lead dancer with the prestigious "entertainment dance group," an exclusive performance group organized for Kim. They had two sons, Jung-Chul and Jung-Woon. In the meantime, Sung Hye-Rim became ill and frequently visited Moscow for treatment. She died there in May 2002.

Recent rumors surrounding a power struggle over Kim's successor, if true, may be a case of history repeating itself. There are signs that Koh Young-Hee is being idolized in North Korea and this may be the first step to pick one her two sons as an officially anointed heir. Kim himself staged a ruthless power struggle with his uncle, Kim Young-Ju. He was victorious and ousted his half-brother, Kim Sung-Ju.

Contrary to the popular belief that Kim Il-Sung groomed his son to transfer power to him, Sohn's biography and the testimonies of other defectors confirm that Kim fought his way up. By 1987, even his father was under the junior Kim's control.

"You have to be shrewd to take the full control of the military, party and the bureaucrats in North Korea. Kim demonstrated the capability. He could not come where he was simply because he was the son of Kim Il-Sung," said Lee Hang-Koo, a long-time North Korea watcher who worked in South Korean military counterintelligence.

Hwang Jang-Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean to defect to the South and perhaps the most knowledgeable about Kim Jong-Il, said Kim has the ability to control people. "He is able to use, manipulate and control people, but he is incapable of loving them," he said.

Kim is a propaganda expert, Hwang and other defectors say. North Korean television and radio never broadcast his voice. The only time he was heard live was in 1992 on the anniversary of the People's Liberation Army foundation, when he uttered: "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the people's army!" This is designed to augment his mysterious character. Likewise, he is always seen wearing jumpers when with people to appear as a benevolent fatherly figure and also as a comrade of the partisan fighters.

South Koreans who observed the 2000 Summit Meeting in Pyongyang were surprised to see how chatty Kim Jong-Il was. But this act was staged to demonstrate that Kim was not a hermit figure but a witty and humorous person. He knew this image would be conveyed to millions of South Koreans. Recalling his meeting, former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung later said: "He was pretty talkative and that was good. I could weigh him by listening. I let him, even encouraged him, to talk."

Kim Jong-Il is also a pragmatist. One reason for North Korea's famine is Kim Il-Sung's persistence in increasing rice crops. Under the slogan, "Rice is Socialism," Kim ordered an increase in rice production. Trees were cut down from hills and small mountains to make way for rice paddies. North Korea's cold weather is not ideal for rice plantations, but nobody dared to challenge the Great Leader. When the rainy seasons arrived, not only were these hills and mountains flooded, but also the better rice paddies in the valleys were lost from the flood earth.

One of the first decisions Kim Jong-Il made after his father's death was to increase potato planting rather than rice. He even named Jagang province "potato province." He risked being accused of questioning the wisdom of the Great Leader for pragmatic reasons.

Kim Jong-Il's ruthlessness against betrayers and mere suspects is well known. But Kim he is also moody at times, according to his former aides. Lee Young-Guk, one of the former bodyguards, said Kim ordered the guards at his residence to stop any approaching cars, including his own, should there be any suspicion. One night a guard did stop Kim's car. Kim's escorts wanted to reprimand the guard, but Kim stopped them and complemented the guard for having done his duty. The next day, the guard was promoted. But another time when a guard stopped Kim's car, Kim angrily barked out, "Can't you recognize your master's car, you idiot?" The guard disappeared from the residence guard unit the following day.

Kim Jong-Il is now keeping the United States and the world at guessing about what will happen next in the nuclear crisis. "Kim Jong-Il does not live in illusion," said Hwang Jang-Yop. "If he thinks he can win, he will never hesitate to attack. He can't stage a war because he knows only too well that he could not win. He will do whatever is best for him."

East-Asia-Intel,, October 17, 2003
Copyright 2003 East West Services, Inc. All rights reserved.

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