The secret lives of Korean dictator’s kin
Aunt, uncle have been in U.S. since ’90s
decided to defect. Ko’s sister, their link to the regime, was sick with terminal breast cancer — although she did not die until 2004 — and the boys were getting older. The couple apparently realized they would not be needed by the regime much longer and fled, concerned about losing their privileged status.
The Kim family has ruled North Korea for 70 years through a repressive system built on patronage and fear. The royal family and top cadres in the Workers’ Party benefit from this system and have the most to lose if it collapses, or if they run afoul of the regime.
So the couple decided to flee — not to South Korea, as many North Koreans do, but to the U.S.
They have worked long hours running their dry-cleaning store, and their three children have come of age in the West, going to good colleges and getting good jobs.
The family home is a large, two-storey house with two cars in the driveway, a huge TV in the living room and a grill on a rear deck. They’ve been to Las Vegas on vacation and two years ago went to South Korea, where Ko enjoyed visiting the palaces she had seen in TV dramas.
They look like a normal family.
But look closer. That photo of her eldest son on a personal watercraft? It’s at Wonsan, where the Kim family has its summer residence. That girl in the photo album? It’s Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, who runs the propaganda division of the Workers’ Party.
And the house? It was bought partly with a onetime payment of US$200,000 the CIA gave the couple on their arrival, they said.
Even though Ko and Ri have not seen Kim Jong-un in almost 20 years and do not appear to have held official positions, U.S. intelligence on North Korea is so thin this couple still represents a valuable source of information on the family court.
They can reveal, for example, Kim Jong-un was born in 1984 — not 1982 or 1983, as has been widely believed. The reason they’re certain? It was the same year their first son was born.
“He and my son were playmates from birth. I changed both of their diapers,” Ko said with a laugh.
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.
The CIA declined to confirm or comment on any of Ko and Ri’s claims. Some parts of the couple’s history can be verified, but other parts cannot, or seem incomplete.
Even today, Ri in particular is sympathetic toward the North Korean regime and is trying to get approval to visit Pyongyang. And both are careful in what they say about their powerful nephew, to whom they repeatedly refer as Marshal Kim Jong-un.
But what they will say about their former charge paints a picture of a man who was raised knowing he would one day be king.
In 1992, Ko Yong Suk arrived in Bern, Switzerland with Kim Jong-chol, the first son of Ko’s sister and Kim Jong-il, who in two years would become the leader of North Korea. Kim Jong-un arrived in 1996, when he was 12.
“We lived in a normal house and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother,” Ko said about her time in Bern.
“I encouraged him to bring his friends home because we wanted them to live a normal life. I made snacks for the kids. They ate cake and played with Legos.”
Kim Jong- un’s maternal aunt and her husband, known in North Korea as Ko Yong Suk and Ri Gang, pose for a portrait in New York’s Times Square in late April. They have been living in the United States since 1998.