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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
The May 27 Washington Post article entitled “The secret life of Kim Jong Un’s aunt, who has lived in the U.S. since 1998” drew my startled attention. It also brought immediately to mind the sad end of another Kim family relative who, two decades ago, decided to go public with his own recollections of being a peripheral member of North Korea’s royal family.
That, of course, was Yi Han Yong, the nephew of a mistress of Kim Jong Il, who was gunned down on the streets of Seoul in February 1997. He reportedly screamed out bbalgaengyi! (“Reds!”) when he was shot, with what forensic evidence determined was a Belgian-made Browning pistol, indicating he knew full well who had been sent on the mission to assassinate him. The two assailants, suspected of being members of North Korean Special Forces specially trained to infiltrate the South, melted away and were never apprehended. Yi succumbed to his mortal wounds in a Seoul hospital less than two weeks later.
Like Kim Jong Un’s mother’s sister, Ko Yong Suk, Yi also defected from Switzerland, the favored escape route of estranged Kim family members. He, however, chose to go to South Korea in 1982 rather than to the United States. He wisely, in retrospect, at first concealed his identity, just as Kim Jong Un’s aunt and her husband did for the first 18 years of their own exile in the United States. Yi even reportedly went so far as to undergo plastic surgery to alter his physical appearance. He lived a quiet life in South Korea for almost 15 years before financial problems, caused by a failed business, led him to attempt to cash in on his celebrity.
He reportedly screamed out bbalgaengyi! (‘Reds!’) when he was shot
He publicly spoke to South Korean journalists and sold the story of his aunt, the mistress Song Hye Rim (and the mother of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged elder half-brother of the current North Korean leader.) Yi then published a tell-all book about the Kim family, entitled Taedong River Royal Family. That, apparently, was the last straw for Kim Jong Il, who reportedly dispatched his hitmen to Seoul to silence Yi once and for all.
DON’T BREAK THE OATH
The Kim family does, very clearly, have a law of silence. As I was in Italy when the interview with Kim Jong Un’s aunt was published, I immediately thought of the code of honor of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, omerta, where members are expected to maintain a strict wall of silence regarding the inner workings of the organization, whatever the consequences. In the Soprano-like Kim family world of torture, palace feuds, sudden executions, illicit drug dealings and weapons smuggling, omerta certainly has its place.
And it is well to recall that in Sicily or New Jersey, breaking omerta is punishable by death. A “snitch” must always face brutal punishment to enforce the code. That should certainly be a cause of concern for current defectors Ko Yong Suk and her husband Ri Gang. The Post noted that “breaking their silence in the United States, Ko and Ri spent almost 20 hours talking to two Washington Post reporters in New York City and then at their home several hours’ drive away. They were nervous about emerging from their anonymity; after all, there are Americans who analyze North Korea for a living and do not even know that the couple are here.”
But certainly Kim Jong Un and his secret police knew that his aunt and erstwhile nanny, before she suddenly flew away like Mary Poppins from caring for him in Switzerland, was in the United States. And, if one were to wish to track her and her husband down, one now also is aware that they live “several hours’ drive away” from New York City in “a large, two-story house with two cars in the driveway,” have “a grill on a rear deck,” have “a dry-cleaning business,” and that “sometimes, operatives from the CIA’s national clandestine service come to town to show Ko and Ri photos of North Koreans and ask who the people are.” This last tidbit of published information must be especially displeasing to the Supreme Leader of North Korea.
The couple is also privy to a lot of biographic information on the Supreme Leader himself that one can only assume he would rather not see publicized. “They can reveal, for example, that Kim Jong Un was born in 1984 – not 1982 or 1983, as has been widely thought. The reason they’re certain? It was the same year that their first son was born.” Or what about their published comment on the Supreme Leader’s notorious lack of patience: “He wasn’t a troublemaker, but he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance.” As someone who is very conscious about his public image, as displayed by the hacking of Sony after the production of the movie The Interview, one could surmise that Kim Jong Un would not be pleased with this observation either.
The couple is also privy to a lot of biographic information on the Supreme Leader himself that one can only assume he would rather not see publicized
The Post article reported that Ko’s husband, Ri Gang at least, is “particularly careful around reporters not to speak ill of the regime, is positioning himself as the person to bridge the widening gap between Washington and Pyongyang.” Ri also said (rather unbelievably) that “my ultimate goal is to go back to North Korea.” Uncle Ri might wish to consider that Kim Jong Un is not known to be the particularly forgiving type.
The fate of another uncle, Jang Song Thaek, purged and executed in 2013, immediately comes to mind. Jang, widely seen as Beijing’s point man in Pyongyang, was accused of “such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices”– a not very veiled reference to Jang’s extensive ties to Chinese commercial interests. And it was likely suspected that Uncle Jang had loose lips in discussing the arcane workings of the Pyongyang inner circle with the Chinese leadership, whom Kim Jong Un reportedly views with great suspicion. Then there were the reports a few years ago of Kim Jong Un’s attempts to kidnap his half-brother Kim Jong Nam from China, or failing that, to have him run over in “a traffic accident.” Kim Jong Nam had rather indiscreetly predicted to the Western media that his little brother’s regime “won’t last long” when Kim Jong Un first came to power in Pyongyang.
The Kim family also never ceased in their efforts to take out the No. 1 defector of all time, the late Hwang Jang Yop, reported architect of the Juche philosophy. Living in Beijing when Hwang sought asylum at a South Korean diplomatic facility there in 1997, I witnessed the lengths to which the North Koreans went in an attempt to get him back, dead or alive. The Sanlitun district became a virtual fortress as the Chinese dispatched armed troops and military vehicles seeking to protect Hwang from assassination by their irate North Korean ally. Members of the expatriate community living in the Sanlitun district had trouble gaining access to their apartments. The International School of Beijing had to change its class hours in order to accommodate the French School which could not hold classes in Sanlitun.
I witnessed the lengths to which the North Koreans went in an attempt to get (Hwang) back, dead or alive
A rumor even swept through the Beijing diplomatic community that the Chinese had to put a stop to North Korean tunneling efforts, taking place on the grounds of a nearby “friendly” Middle Eastern embassy, seeking to reach Hwang by going underground. Finally, the crisis ended a number of weeks later when Hwang and his colleague were spirited off to South Korea via the Philippines.
Pyongyang, however, continued to periodically attempt to silence Hwang by formulating assassination plots with secret agents. The last such attempt was made in April 2010 when South Korea’s National Intelligence Service arrested two agents who had infiltrated, posing as refugees, with the mission of killing Hwang. Hwang Jang Yop, however, thwarted his nemesis Kim Jong Il until the very end – he died of a reported heart attack at his home in Seoul in October 2010. Of Hwang, Kim Jong Il was once quoted on Radio Pyongyang as saying, “Cowards, leave if you want to. We will defend the red flag of revolution to the end.”
When one considers the past experiences of Yi Han Yong, Hwang Jang Yop, Jang Song Thaek, and Kim Jong Nam one can only hope that the U.S. government has provided Ko Yong Suk and her husband with a top-notch witness protection program. In fact, another move may be in order to stay one step ahead of the agents of the Supreme Leader.
Main image: Rodong Sinmun