They finally got Kim Jong Nam, the first born son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and half-brother of Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia in February. It has been reported that this was not the first time that an attempt was made on his life.
The victim had even once appealed to his half brother, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, to spare his life. He was not lucky enough, this time, to survive an elaborately organized plot making use of a nerve gas banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The assassins tried to cover their trails by employing local women to do the job and by leaving the country as soon as the deed had been done. However, there were unusual traits which pointed in a certain direction.
This was not the first time that members of the same North Korean family were featured in the media, mostly for unfortunate events. Kim Jong Nam’s cousin, Lee Han-yong, was assassinated in South Korea in 1997. The assassins were never caught nor their identities revealed, but the South Korean security agency said it was carried out by special agents from North Korea.
Then there was Song Hye Rim, Kim Jong Il’s mistress and mother of Kim Jong Nam, who died alone in an apartment owned by the North Korean embassy in Moscow.
Though living in material affluence, pampered by the people of the North Korean mission, she was unhappy, depressed most of the time and often given to fits of tantrums. She regretted leaving her husband and daughter for Kim Jong Il, whose love moved ultimately to another mistress, the mother of the present leader. Her sister, Song Hye Rang had joined her daughter Lee Ok Nam in the West, leaving behind the privileged life of that the dear leader’s relations enjoyed.
This was not the first time that members of the same North Korean family were featured in the media, mostly for unfortunate events
All these people share something in common. They all belonged to an extended family of an idealistic couple, Song Yu Kyung and Kim Won Ju, who had left a life of privilege and wealth as heirs to a large land owning family in the South for the ideals of a socialist paradise in the North.
FROM PRIVILEGE TO PYONGYANG
Song Yu Kyung was born at the end of the 19th century, a scion of one of the wealthiest landowning families of Korea. At the age of 14, he was married through an arrangement between the families. This was a not uncommon practice, particularly among upper-class families in pre-modern Korea. However, times were rapidly changing.
Song ran away from home at the age of 17, like a number of like-minded youths of the period. He was briefly enlisted in a modern middle-school in Seoul but ultimately made his way to Japan, the center of modernizing movement in East Asia at that time.
There, two things happened to him: he met a young lady, Kim Won Ju, who was (unlike himself) from a poor family in one of the northern provinces of Korea. By her own hard efforts, she had come to Japan for a modern education. Song courted Kim but failed to get permission from his parents, which was required by law at that time, to divorce his much-neglected wife. However, they began to live together in Seoul and started a family.
“I sent my son to university education. When he returned, he called me ‘Comrade Father’.”
Song Yu Kyung was deeply moved by a lecture given by Japanese socialist activist Takasu Seito and became a leftist. Ultimately, they became communists and joined the Party after the liberation of Korea in 1945. This was not uncommon among Korean youths, particularly from wealthy families who had resources to send their children to higher education. Quite often these young men returned from school as rebels against their own families, who usually adhered to the values of their feudalistic past.
As a popular joke that went around among people at that time: “I sent my son to university education. When he returned, he called me ‘Comrade Father’.”
Kim Won Ju went to North Korea and stayed there. Their son, Song Il Kyung, also joined her in the North. He wanted to study at Kim Il Sung University, but was trained as a guerilla fighter and sent back to South Korea to join partisan fighters in the mountains. Kim Won Ju became the only woman lecturer at the same school, tasked with training other guerilla fighters.
She later became a journalist, ultimately becoming chief editor of the international section of the Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party. In the meantime, Song Yu Kyung was imprisoned in the South. He served three years in prison, but was freed when Seoul was “liberated” by North Korean soldiers in June 1950. The Korean War brought them together, but there was little time to enjoy the family reunion.
Trouble started in the North once the war was over. Kim Il Sung began purging potential political rivals from a position of strength acquired as the “Supreme Commander in Chief” of the North Korean Army. His first target was the South Korean faction under the leadership of Park Hon Yong. The leaders of the South Korean communists who survived the colonial rule of Japan and American military Government were tried on the charge of being American spies, found guilty and executed.
The family found relief and comfort under the protection of Kim Jong Il
The root of the problem for the Songs was their songbun. Nobody could overcome this stain with which one is born, however they might try. And this couple belonged to the songbun class labeled “reactionary.” Song Yu Kyung once contemplated committing suicide to relieve his wife of this songbun burden from having married a land owner’s son. Even more important, the two were ‘Southerners’ in the eyes of those in power in the North.
SOME MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
Song was demoted from his position through several stages before finally relegated to a farming village to take care of ox carts. His wife, Kim Won Ju was subjected to self-criticism and confession for becoming members of the Party through the leaders of the South Korean faction. She was dismissed from the Rodong Sinmun and transferred to the Pyongyang Sinmun where she found people in similar situations. She was subjected to harassment from her superiors. In the meantime, her daughter Song Hye Rang’s husband died in an accident.
Song Hye Rim was, therefore, a relief for a family in distress. She had been married for some time and had a daughter, but Kim Jong Il fell in love with her in the late 1960s and arranged her divorce. She moved in with him. In 1971 they had a child, the first offspring of the dear leader and a son, too.
The child was Kim Jong Nam, his birth kept a secret in North Korea, a taboo which people could touch only at the greatest peril to their security. There were many who completely ruined not only themselves but also the lives of their families for mentioning the private life of the dear leader in conversation. Song Hye Rim’s relations with Kim Jong Il were kept secret even from her father, the idealistic communist. However, the family found relief and comfort under the protection of Kim Jong Il.
Kim Won Ju, once a fiery activist for the cause of revolution, became the caretaker of Kim Jong Il’s palatial residence. Her duties included looking after her grandson, Kim Jong Nam. Song Hye Rang also moved into the residence together with her children. She became a tutor for Kim Jong Nam. The family led a life of comfort and luxury, free from all burdens of meetings, “voluntary” participation in services mobilized by the Party or the government. But the price for this was a near-complete isolation from others. The daughters, as well as their mother, had to keep their distance from their patriarch Song Yu Kyung.
Over the course of 12 years Song Yu Kyung met his wife only twice, but to his last breath he kept his belief that socialism was the future for mankind and remained devotedly loyal to the great leader. His last wish on his death bed was to see his daughter, Song Hye Rim, who remained beyond his reach for 10 years. This wish was never met.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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