02 May 2009

Kim's Secret Family

Secret Lives
Posted Monday, June 23, 2003

For two decades, Sung Hae Rang lived behind closed doors with the despot said to be the world's most dangerous madman.

The diminutive woman nervously spills some sugar as she spoons it into her coffee. It has been several years since she defected from the inner court of one of the world's most secretive dictatorships, and until now she has not had the courage to give an interview to the Western press. Today, Sung Hae Rang lives far away from totalitarian North Korea, in an austere, white walled, one-bedroom apartment in a European location she insists not be identified in print. Now in her late 60s, she tries to speak well of the man she fears, whom some say is the greatest threat to global peace. "Everyone wants to know about Kim Jong Il—who he is, what he's capable of," she says of North Korea's ruler. "But you can't base his entire personality on your opinion of his leadership. I knew him as a person, as family."

Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hae Rang with his teenage son Jong Nam at a rare family outing at the beach in North Korea

Indeed, Sung lived in Kim's household. Her sister, a North Korean movie star, was one of his three wives. Sung helped raise Kim's son, and her own children—a son and a daughter—were part of the despot's extended family. Sung shared a difficult period in Kim's life as he survived the byzantine court of his father Kim Il Sung, founder of the Stalinist country, to become leader of North Korea himself. She insists there is more to him than the tyrant with the nuclear-cloud pompadour parodied around the world. Many regard Kim as a deluded and dangerous madman—he has stuffed his pockets with vast profits from drug trafficking while his people starve, and just last week he warned of "limitless" retaliation against the U.S. and Japan if they attempt a blockade of the North's illicit overseas trade. But "if you simply write him off as an evil, one-dimensional cartoon character," Sung says, "you are missing half the picture."

Sung remembers sitting with Kim and watching North Korean propaganda on television sometime after he succeeded his autocratic father. "Ridiculous images of well-dressed young children, artificially smiling and posing, flashed on the screen," she recalls. She remembers turning to Kim and saying, "It's so obviously fake. Can't you do something about it?" Kim, looking very tired, replied, "I know. But if I tell them to tone down the artificiality, they will go completely in the opposite direction and find the most dirty, wretched children they can, dressed in horrible rags."

Sung often feels sorry for the man North Koreans call their Dear Leader. "He's on a speeding train. Any move to stop it or get off, it will crash," she says, smacking her hands together. Still, she would rather not let her infamous in-law know her whereabouts. I had gained Sung's confidence only through the mediation of mutual relatives, who arranged for me to spend some 12 hours interviewing her. She agreed to provide a rare inside look at the intimate side of Kim Jong Il, but she speaks of certain subjects with trepidation. Only with prodding does she describe Kim's terrifying volatility. "When he is happy, he can treat you really, really well. But when he's angry," Sung shudders, "he can make every window in the house shake. He has a personality of extremes, all colliding within the same mind."

Sung first met Kim Jong Il in the early hours of May 10, 1971. Awakened by the honking of a car, she jumped out of bed so quickly that she nearly tore the linen dress she wore, hurrying down to meet a man she had until then seen only in pictures. Kim, then 29, asked her to climb inside the large, black car. She knew already that he had secretly taken her sister, Sung Hae Rim, to live with him as his wife and did not want his father to find out. But the situation had become more complicated, as Kim explained in the car. He and her sister had produced a child, named Kim Jong Nam. That revelation made Sung Hae Rang a guardian of what she says was at the time "the biggest secret in North Korea." And it would ultimately turn her life upside down. In 1976, at Kim's insistence, she was press-ganged into the household to help raise Kim Jong Nam because the boy, then five years old, couldn't be allowed to attend school lest the truth about his parentage get out. Sung, whose husband had been killed in an accident, brought her own son and daughter to her new home to provide Kim's boy with companionship. She was also joined by her mother, who had been a respected editor at the Rodong Daily News, North Korea's official press organ.

Sung and her family would spend the next two decades as part of North Korea's "First Family." In The Wisteria House, her Korean-language memoir that she is currently translating into English, Sung describes the experience as living in a "luxury prison," a shadow household built on a foundation of conspiracy and concealment. For puritanical reasons, Kim Il Sung would have vehemently disapproved of his son's nesting with Sung Hae Rim. The younger Kim's new love was six years his senior. And she was already married. That marriage ended, however, because Kim Jong Il forced her husband to give her up.

Nobody—including Sung Hae Rang—knows for sure if Kim Jong Il and Sung Hae Rim held a clandestine wedding ceremony or if Kim opted to avoid the stamp of officialdom so that their secret life together would be easier to conceal. What is clear is that Kim could not afford to suffer his all-powerful father's disapproval by going public about his new family. Kim's mother had died when he was only seven and his father had remarried. As heir presumptive, he had to maneuver against an ambitious stepmother who wanted her own son, Kim's half-brother, to be her husband's political successor. Kim's fate, perhaps even his life, depended on not giving his enemies the means to diminish his standing with his father, whom he both feared and revered. He was, Sung says, "afraid of disappointing his father, and his behavior reflected that." Obsessively so. Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, would never find out about the peculiar household his eldest son had set up with Sung Hae Rim in 1970.

Fear of his father couldn't keep Kim Jong Il from Sung Hae Rim. He was completely besotted with her. He was a film buff, passionate about the movies, and she was a beautiful and famous star of North Korean cinema. The two had become "pals," says Sung, through this mutual interest. Meanwhile, the actress saw the match partly as a way to lift political pressure from her own family. Her father was a wealthy South Korean landowner who sympathized with the Communists and moved north. In spite of that sacrifice, he was persecuted in his adopted country as a member of an enemy class. But politics was just one part of the actress's calculations, says Sung. Her sister was genuinely fond of Kim Jong Il and felt sorry for him because he grew up without his own mother. If it weren't for his father's potential disapproval, Sung Hae Rang believes, the match might have proved much happier. "If circumstances had been different," she wrote in her memoir, "they could've made a great couple." Instead, no one outside a tiny circle knew they were partners until after his father died and was succeeded by Kim.

Life with Kim was luxurious. He stashed the family away in secluded villas and seaside pavilions, and occasionally granted permission for them to make overseas shopping trips. Their affluence was a marked contrast to the poverty of the huge majority of North Korean citizens. Sung says she was often baffled by Kim's indifference to the fate of his subjects. "He wastes money holding lavish festivals, forcing people to participate in these spectacles, while so many go hungry," she says. "My heart hurts when I think of the starvation. These are my people, and there's nothing I can do."

Sung's own existence, though hardly spartan, had its privations, too. Kim was obsessed with the family's movements and whereabouts. Though the members were allowed to travel, they could do so only with his approval. "We were hidden away, trapped," says Sung. There was the constant danger of discovery. Sung recalls when Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il's son, then four years old, was ill and had to be taken to the hospital. At the same time, Kim's stepmother and half-brother decided to take an official tour of that very hospital and were headed for the children's ward. Sung's own mother, sitting at Jong Nam's bedside, lifted the sick child onto her back and crept out of a window, taking refuge in a strand of poplar trees beside the hospital. "She took each step carefully, so the crunching of the leaves wouldn't be too loud," says Sung. After that, she recalls, "we couldn't even go to the hospital." Later, when the hospital became a convenient spot to avoid prying eyes, "that became the only place we were allowed to go."

As the years went by, Kim's ardor for his actress wife cooled. He was unfaithful. He started up at least two other families—and what little latitude Sung Hae Rang and her sister enjoyed shrank further still, as he plotted their schedules so that they would never run into the other women in his life. Sung Hae Rim never grew accustomed to such buffeting. She tried to cope with the fact that Kim Jong Il had to marry Kim Young Sook, a woman his father had picked out for him but whom he never really cared for. More devastating was his relationship with Ko Young Hee, a Japanese-born ethnic Korean and a dancer, who would displace Sung Hae Rim in his favor. Ko eventually became one of Kim's wives, although—as with Sung Hae Rim—it's not known whether or not he felt it necessary to officially marry her. For years, Kim Jong Il would never appear in public with any of his three consorts, denying them the secure status of "First Lady." That role was filled instead by Kim's politically powerful younger sister, Kim Kyung Hee.

Sung Hae Rang insists that her brother-in-law can be very affable and has an engaging curiosity about people: "He'll ask you about yourself, about your thoughts and opinions. He has a talent for making people feel at ease when he wants to." His curiosity also expressed itself in his obsession with the arts. He has an enormous personal library of movies, music and books—10,000 to 20,000 books, according to Sung, most collected by her mother, the former newspaper editor. Kim's love of food is also legendary: Sung says he enjoys cooking two Japanese specialties—sukiyaki and teppanyaki. A tennis fanatic when he was younger, his increasing corpulence later became a preoccupation, she says, so he exercised daily by swimming laps.

As for Kim the family man, Sung is anxious to give him credit for adoring his young son. When Jong Nam was an infant, Kim would patiently coo the child to sleep while carrying him on his back. As the boy grew older, Sung says Kim became increasingly convinced that Jong Nam was suffering from being cooped up in secluded villas. "We moved back and forth between the houses at east Pyongyang and Chungsangdong," she says. The boy "needed a change of scenery. He was going stir-crazy, not being allowed to go out." Kim granted a bit of leeway, allowing the sisters to travel with his son to residences in Geneva and Moscow.

But Kim's tenderheartedness could seem bizarre, even frightening. Sung Hae Rang remembers seeing her brother-in-law arrive home from a hunting trip in a state of agitation. After storming into the house, he immediately placed a call to a local hospital and asked, in a stricken tone, if "mother and baby" were alright. Everyone stared in bewilderment at the distraught Kim until he explained. While hunting, he had mistakenly shot a pregnant deer. In a fit of conscience, he had rushed doe and unborn fawn to the hospital, where the baby deer was put in an incubator in the maternity ward.

To those around him, Kim's ferocious mood swings represented a constant, and very real, menace. "I know of people who died because he abandoned them," Sung wrote in her memoirs. "Losing ... favor meant the end of one's career and sometimes life." Being a family member afforded little protection. When Kim caught his son with an unapproved girlfriend, he cut off food shipments to the house where Jong Nam lived with his mother and aunt, and threatened to send him to the country's brutal coal mines. Sung remembers begging on her knees with the rest of the family to spare the teen. Kim eventually relented and he forgot about the incident. Completely. Two months later, he scolded the family for not ordering their regular food shipments, apparently failing to recall that he had canceled the order himself.

Kim was at his most dangerous when he believed himself betrayed or deceived. "He hates—positively hates—liars," Sung says. "This is the thing that angers him like nothing else." In 1980 she went on a shopping trip to Helsinki without Kim's consent. Other North Koreans have been arrested for less serious infractions. Returning to Pyongyang, Sung packed her bags, expecting her banishment to a labor camp was imminent. Kim asked her where she had gone and why, although he already knew the answers. Sung, feeling she had nothing to lose, told her brother-in-law the truth—and it mollified him. She was allowed to stay.

Life for Sung's sister was even more perilous. Sung Hae Rim became terrified that Kim Jong Il would throw her into the streets in a fit of rage. Falling increasingly out of favor with her husband, she would take refuge in a house that he kept in Moscow. There, she would soothe her nerves for long periods to recover from his tantrums. She died last summer in her mid-60s in the Russian capital, where she was seeking treatment for stress-related disorders. Sung Hae Rang laments, "She died because of having to live like that for years with Kim Jong Il. That life killed her."

For Sung Hae Rang, there was another way out. In 1982, her own son, then 21, defected to South Korea. Her daughter escaped the North 10 years later, at the age of 26. During a 1996 visit to Kim's Geneva villa, Sung herself slipped away into the city streets and went into hiding in the European countryside. "I was really afraid for my life those first few years," she says. "I hid in a loft. I wandered the streets with a Japanese woman I knew, pretending to be Japanese also. The danger was all I could think about." Her fear was well founded. "The main reason I left [North Korea] was to be near my children," she says. But the year after she defected, her son was shot to death on the streets of Seoul by unidentified assailants.

Today, she says, "my biggest regret was leaving my sister Hae Rim behind." But there is another, more surprising source of sadness in Sung's life. She says she misses Kim's son as if he were her own child. She believes Jong Nam did not have a "normal" upbringing because of the isolation enforced by his father. Even now, she regularly scans newspapers looking for scraps of information about her nephew—and she was particularly distressed to see his photograph in the papers when he sneaked into Japan in May 2001 in an attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland. The incident—and Jong Nam's subsequent expulsion from Japan—deeply embarrassed Kim Jong Il. Now 32, Jong Nam may no longer be the Dear Leader's heir apparent, displaced by a younger half-brother believed to be the son of Kim's third wife Ko. "I don't know what's become of him," Sung says of her former charge, "or what he's like these days. When I defected, I felt like I left him behind, like I betrayed him."

Her voice shakes and trails off. She takes off her glasses and dabs at her eyes. Unable to go on talking about her nephew, the dictator's son, she holds up her hands and brings her story to an end.

Source: Time's Asia