The se­cret lives of Korean dic­ta­tor’s kin

Aunt, un­cle have been in U.S. since ’90s

SundayXtra - - WORLD -

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.

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