N. Korea‘s first family
The recent promotion of Kim Jong-un, now the “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, has once again confirmed what has been known since the 1970s: North Korea is an absolute monarchy in all but name.
Predictably, this has stimulated much public interest in the intricate web of the family relations of the nation’s hereditary oligarchy, the Kim family itself, which has remained at the helm of the regime for nearly 70 years.
For the moment, we can forget about dalliances and children of Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the dynasty. It seems that the dynastic politics nowadays revolve around Kim Jong-il’s immediate family ― his only surviving sister, her husband Jang Seong-taek and, above all, Kim Jong-il’s four known children (including new leader, Kim Jong-un).
Admittedly, not much is known about North Korea’s first family. Their life cannot become the topic of gossip columns in Pyongyang’s tabloids (for the obvious reason that there are no tabloids in Pyongyang). Even the North Korean public seldom discusses this issue since they have learnt the hard way that excessive discussion of the first family’s personal circumstances is deadly dangerous. Nonetheless, some information has filtered through.
Kim Jong-il’s love life was, frankly, quite turbulent. In his youth he had a reputation as a playboy who enjoyed much success with girls. Of course, the position of heir-designate did help, but he did have other advantages too: he was sporty, owned what probably was the only private motorbike in Pyongyang and had a good knowledge of foreign movies and pop culture (together with personal charisma and a good sense of humor).
There are rumors that in the mid-1960s his dictator father made him marry a woman with perfect political credentials but this union is said to have not lasted long. The first woman of consequence in Kim Jong-il’s life was the actress Seong Hye-rim, who he met in the late 1960s.
At the time of their meeting, Seong was married but the affair led to a divorce. It is seems that they never registered their marriage but nonetheless she moved into his place (or rather his palace) and soon, in 1971, gave birth to Kim Jong-il’s first known son, Kim Jong-nam.
This affair failed to win the approval of Kim Il-sung. Beautiful Seong had two serious shortcomings. She was a divorcee and also the daughter of South Korean communists. Her parents were among the numerous South Korean leftists who moved North in the late 1940s in order to participate in the construction of the nascent socialist paradise. Most of these people were eventually purged, and those few who managed to survive remained under political suspicion for the rest of their lives.
So, Seong was eventually sent to comfortable exile overseas, to Moscow, where she would die in 2002. Her child remained in Pyongyang and reportedly had good relations with Kim Jong-il. In the late 1990s he was even seen as the most likely successor to his father.
However, things did not work out as expected. For the last 10 years Kim Jong-nam has lived in Macau, and has kept aloof from North Korean politics. He was not even seen at his own father’s funeral (which he might have attended privately, if some reports are to be believed).
After Seong’s departure for Moscow, Kim Jong-il set up home with another beauty of an artistic background and somewhat dubious political credentials. Ko Yong-hee was a dancer and she came from a family of ethnic Koreans who moved to North Korea from Japan.
Ko and Kim Jong-il had two known sons. Their first child was Kim Jong-cheol, of whom not much is known, apart from his love of Eric Clapton. He was seen at the singer’s concert in 2011.
The youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was born in the early 1980s ― the exact age of the new North Korean dictator is not known. He lost his mother at a young age. It seems to be a recurrent peculiarity of the Kim family, where wives tend to die young. Ko died in 2004 and she could not see either the promotion of her son as successor nor his succession.
After Ko’s death, Kim Jong-il acquired a new mistress, Kim Ok. As far as we know they had no children, even though Kim Ok, unlike her predecessors, has managed to acquire some political clout in the Pyongyang leadership.
Nothing is known of Kim Jong-un’s children, if he has any. If he does, one should probably not envy them. It is dangerous to be a member of the royal family in an absolute monarchy, as we will probably see in the not too distant future.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.