The family feuds of the Kim dynasty

Two deaths, multiple exiles have settled potential disputes between siblings
January 15th, 2014
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The sudden dismissal and judicial murder of Jang Song Thaek has attracted much attention to the North Korean royal family. Indeed, Jang’s demise was unprecedented, but this large and steadily growing family has never been free of feuds, quarrels and rivalries. In this regard, it is not much different from most royal families in an absolute monarchy.

Until now, many lesser Kims have found themselves out of favor at some point with the ruling Kim – and therefore have gotten themselves into some degree of trouble. In many cases, their situation was made worse by the politics of the harem (both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were active and enthusiastic womanizers, and produced a number of children with different women). In due time, these princes developed bitter rivalries.

With regard to the first generation of the Kim family, we should not forget the fate that befell Kim Yong Ju – the younger brother of Kim Il Sung. Kim Yong Ju himself had few, if any, revolutionary credentials – and was even rumored to be a minor ex-collaborator. In spite of this, in the late 1950s he was promoted to high positions in the state and party hierarchy. In the 1960s, he was commonly seen as a potential successor to Kim Il Sung himself. Ultimately, however, Kim Yong Ju was to be passed over in favor of Kim Jong Il (Kim Il Sung’s eldest son).

“It is potentially dangerous to change one’s successor to the throne”

 
As every sovereign since time immemorial has known, it is potentially dangerous to change one’s successor to the throne. In order to ensure stability, therefore, something has to be done to deal with the threat of successor’s who lose their standing. So, Kim Yong Ju disappeared in 1975, not to be heard of again until the early 1990s. At the time of his disappearance, there were rumors that Kim Yong Ju was conspiring against Kim Jong Il. Whether these rumors were true or not cannot be verified as of now. However, even if they were not, Kim Yong Ju had to be removed, regardless of his attitude toward the new successor.

With Kim Yong Ju things ended rather well: He resurfaced in 1993 and was even given some ceremonial positions in the North Korean top hierarchy. Nobody knows where he spent his time during his disappearance, though rumor has it that he was confined to a comfortable mansion somewhere in the countryside.

The second generation of the Kim family produced more cases of family infighting. Kim Il Sung reputedly married twice officially, not counting his liaisons with other women (quite numerous by many accounts). When his first wife Kim Jong Suk died in 1949, he quickly remarried and had a number of children with his second wife Kim Song Ae. As far as we know, Kim Song Ae in the 1960s entertained some political ambitions for herself and her sons. In the end though, Kim Il Sung chose his first-born son of his first marriage as his successor.

In this situation, Kim Jong Il’s half-brothers constituted a potential political threat. They were treated quite leniently, however: sent overseas to serve as high-level diplomats. This meant that they were kept away from Pyongyang and could be easily supervised, but could nonetheless enjoy a very agreeable lifestyle. One of Kim Jong Il’s half-brothers, Kim Pyong Il, having held a number of comfortable positions in Europe, now serves as DPRK ambassador to Poland. Another of Kim Jong Il’s half-brothers, Kim Yong Il, also served overseas till his premature (but obviously natural) death in 2000.

The family story of Kim Jong Il was somewhat similar to that of his father. Like Kim Il Sung, he married a number of times, thus ensuring a bitter rivalry between his children, as well as between his women.

Kim Jong Il’s first long-term relationship was with Song Hye Rim, a movie actress and famous beauty who also happened to be a daughter of a South Korean communist family that had fled North in the 1940s. They had a son together, but their union was never approved of by Kim Il Sung. The relationship lasted for a few years and disintegrated in the 1970s.

Kim Jong Il found a new girlfriend soon after, a dancer by the name of Ko Yong Hee. Song Hye Rim suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent into comfortable exile overseas. She spent the last two decades of her life in Moscow, where she died in 2002. Her sister Song Hye Rang made headlines in 1996 by leaving North Korea via Russia and escaping to Switzerland, where she still resides at an undisclosed location, keeping a low profile. She has authored a fascinating memoir, but in recent years has kept her distance from politics.

The reason we do not know where she lives and why she does not speak out about North Korea is simple enough: North Korean agents assassinated her son. Her son, Ri Han Yong (a pseudonym for Ri Il Nam) escaped North Korea in 1982, and eventually arrived in the South. At first, his arrival was kept secret, but he would start appearing on South Korean TV and commentating in newspapers on events in Pyongyang. He also published a book on the Kim family, highly critical, but admittedly not too reliable and full of unverified claims. In 1997, he was shot at the entrance to his apartment in a Seoul suburb. Eventually, indirect (but rather persuasive) evidence confirmed what was suspected from the very beginning: His death was an act of revenge authorized by Kim Jong Il himself.

“Kim family feuds have thus far produced two dead bodies, one or more domestic exile, and five overseas exiles”

 
Ri Han Yong is not the only member of the Kim family’s third generation who has brazenly opposed the regime in Pyongyang. Ri’s cousin, Song Hye Rim’s son Kim Jong Nam (the eldest son of Kim Jong Il), is also living in comfortable overseas exile. For a brief while, it was widely expected that Kim Jong Nam would succeed his father as ruler of the country, but for some reason things did not turn out that way. It has often been stated that Kim Jong Nam’s troubles began when he was arrested on his way to Disneyland by the Japanese authorities (for traveling on a fake passport). It now seems clear though that this was not the reason. For whatever the reason, around 2000, Kim Jong Nam and his family moved to Macao, at the time the major center of North Korea’s illicit financial and intelligence activities. Since then, Kim Jong Nam has lived largely in Macao, though sometimes also living in China, while only occasionally visiting North Korea.

It seems that after Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power in 2011, Kim Jong Nam’s connection with Pyongyang was broken all but completely. Therefore, he currently lives in complete exile, both supervised and protected by the Chinese authorities. For Beijing, it might make sense to have a Kim at their disposal, but given the thinly veiled mistrust between Beijing and Pyongyang, this does not make Kim Jong Nam more popular with his half-brother. There were even rumors of assassination attempts against Kim Jong Nam allegedly arranged by Kim Jong Un and North Korean intelligence.

So, Kim family feuds have thus far produced two dead bodies (including that of Jang Song Thaek), one or more domestic exile (with an eventual pardon in at least one case), and five overseas exiles (not counting their children). One can hardly describe the Kims as a dysfunctional family, but it is clear that it does not present us with an example of unbroken unity either.

Picture edited by NK News

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About the Author

Andrei Lankov

Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung University in 1985. Following his graduate studies, he taught Korean history and language at his alma mater, and in 1992 went to South Korea for work; he moved to Australia in 1996 to take up a post at the Australian National University, and moved back to Seoul to teach at Kookmin University in 2004. Dr. Lankov has a DPRK-themed Livejournal blog in Russian with occasional English posts, where he documents aspects of life in North (and South) Korea, together with his musings and links to his publications. He also writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times.

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