Kim Jong Il (1941-1994) was the leader of North Korea from 1994 to his death in 2011. A very secretive and mysterious figure, he rarely traveled outside of North Korea and most of what is known about him has come from defectors whose views are not always reliable. Intelligence officers in the U.S. and South Korea had so few sources of information that they analyzed rare North Korean television broadcasts frame by frame for clues.

Kim Jong Il was the eldest son of Kim Il Sung who lead North Korea from inception after World War II to his death in 1994. James Walsh of Time magazine described him as a "mass of contradiction: terrorist and warmonger, or would-be economic reformer and peacemaker? A pampered, pouting sorehead indifferent to responsibilities, or a relatively shrewd go-getter who has mastered much statecraft?"

A former U.S. ambassador to Seoul told Time, initially he was a "short, unprepossessing kid following a tremendously charismatic, long tenured father, desperately trying to live up to him." Analysts at the CIA often refereed to him as "junior" or "kid." His staff called the “Great General.” The Economist once carried a picture of a waving Kim Jong Il with the headline “Greetings, Earthlings.” Robert Gates, former director of the CIA, said that Kim was "not unstable or crazy, just weird." A Korean critic in Japan called the Kim dynasty "right out of a comic strip."

Kim Il-sung designated Kim Jong-il as his successor in 1974. Kim Il Sung died unexpectedly on July 8, 1994. Although Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, had been groomed as heir apparent for two decades and had succeeded his father as chairman of the National Defense Commission and commander in chief of the armed forces in April 1993, he did not emerge as general secretary of the KWP until October 1997. Like his father before him, Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” continued to rule in dictatorial fashion, and North Korea continued as the world’s most reclusive society amidst severe economic decline, famine, and an increasingly disaffected society. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

Michael Elliott wrote in Time magazine: “A portly man who has been suspected of wearing platform shoes and having an unhealthy appetite for movies — and movie stars — can be expected to be the butt of jokes. But North Korea's Dear Leader is no laughing matter. Since his accession to power on the death of his father Kim Il Sung, in 1994, Kim Jong Il has shown that an economic basket case of a state, which at times has been unable to feed its people, and which is brutally authoritarian, can still manage to keep the great powers off balance — so long as it has, or plausibly threatens to have, nuclear weapons. U.S. officials, together with those of South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, try to figure Kim's motivations precisely because Pyongyang's nuclear program makes North Korea one of the most dangerous regimes in the world. [Source: Michael Elliott, Time, April 26, 2004]

“Kim is no fool. Those who have met him describe a man who is smart and has a supreme sense of self-confidence, almost as if the movie buff aspired to be a director, shuffling everyone else around at his command. And though North Korea can seem one of the places most isolated from world affairs, Kim is said to keep abreast of events by trolling the Internet and watching TV.”

Books: “Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader” by Michael Breen, John Wiley, 2004; “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea” by Jasper Becker, Oxford University Press, 2005; “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader” by Bradley K Martin, 2004); “Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il” by Michael Malice (2014). Film: documentary 'The Lovers and the Despot' (2016) by British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan;

Kim Jong Il Creation Myth

According to North Korean propaganda the birth of Kim Jong Il was foretold by a swallow who said "a prodigious general destined to rule the world will be born on February 16, 1941." On that day a new shining star and a pair of rainbows appeared above the log cabin on Mount Paektu where Kim Jong Il was born. There were even reports of a flying white horse. As a young boy, Kim was suckled by a she wolf and tutored by centaurs.

"The secret camp of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army in the primeval forest was his home, and ammunition belts and magazines were his playthings. The raging blizzards and ceaseless gunshots were the first sounds to which he became accustomed.

"Day in and day out fierce battles went on and, during breaks, there were military and political trainings. On the battlefield, there was no quilt to warmly wrap the newborn child. So women guerrillas gallantly tore cotton out of their own uniforms and each contributed pieces of cloth to make a patchwork quilt for the infant.” One propaganda report said: "When he was a child he found out why chickens raise their bills when they drink water and why there is no black flower."

When a tour guide at Paekdu mountain was asked how Kim Il Jong could have been born in Siberia (where he was really born) and on Mt. Paekdu first she dismissed the information about Siberia as Soviet propaganda and them said "Maybe our great leader was conceived in Khabarovsk and born here." A replica of the original log cabin where Kim Il Jong was born is situated on the mountain. Inside are "original" toy pistols and a knife, blankets and pillows.

Kim Jong Il’s Mythical Achievements

Kim Jong Il reportedly learned to walk when he was only three weeks old and was talking at eight weeks. Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: “At junior high school in Pyongyang, he corrected and chastised his teachers for incorrectly interpreting history, according to his official biography. Moving on to higher education, he found time to write 1,500 books during his three years at Kim Il-sung University, from where he graduated in 1964, and penned six full operas in two years - "all of which are better than any in the history of music", his biography gushes. [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, 10 Apr 2015]

“Turning his hand to the film industry, Mr Kim insisted on overseeing many aspects of the nation's domestic movie output and, according to the Korea Central News Agency, "improved the scripts and guided the production of the movie "Diary of a Girl Student." Kim was also a star of the sporting arena. His biography claims that he first picked up a golf club in 1994, at North Korea's only golf course, and shot a 38-under par round that included no fewer than 11 holes in one. Satisfied with his performance, he immediately declared his retirement from the sport.

Bradley Martin wrote: “Jesus Christ as an Eagle Scout, doing many good turns, that pretty much sums up the official portrayals of the younger Kim.” Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “Most modern dictators have been self-made men, and it is the particular affliction of North Korea that Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, was a self-made deity. In his lifetime, state propaganda spoke of him as incomparable, omnipotent and infallible - 'the clairvoyant', Korea's 'sun', 'the perfect brain', capable even of determining the weather (at least when it was good) - and in 1998, four years after his death, the constitution was revised to install him as 'president for eternity'. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

“His son, Kim Jong Il, rules as much as a caretaker as he does as an heir; he is described merely as the 'Central Brain' and 'the morning star', a lesser light reflecting the sun's glow. In the early 70s, the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences expunged the definition of hereditary rule from its Dictionary of Political Terminologies - 'a reactionary custom of exploitative societies'. Yet even after he was publicly anointed successor to his father's throne in 1980, Kim Jong Il kept a low profile, tucked away in the regime's secret nerve centres, the Department of Propaganda and Agitation and the Department of Organisation and Guidance. Confucius said, 'When your father is alive, observe his will. When your father is dead, observe his former actions. If for three years you do not change from the ways of your father, you can be called a "real son".' The junior Kim earned that title. 'Expect no change from me,' he said after the Great Leader died, and for once he has kept his word.

“Kim Jong Il says he regards 'the people' as 'the most beautiful and excellent beings in the world and deeply worships them'. But he doesn't trust them. In North Korea, the truth has never been a matter of fact so much as an expression of the Kims' whim - father and son. The great preponderance of this so-called truth is a confection of outright lies - not merely false but, more perniciously, a form of unreality, imposed with such relentlessness and violence on a people hermetically sealed from any alternative sources of information that it has become their own reality. His adoration, like a jealous lover's, is only rhetorically distinguishable from contempt. To maintain a kingdom of lies is to live in perpetual fear of being exposed, and the Pyongyang regime considers its insularity its proudest accomplishment, the key to its survival, and proof, as Kim Jong Il has said, that 'we have nothing to envy the rest of the world'.

Kim Jong Il's Real Early Life

Kim Jong Ilwas the eldest son of Kim Il Sung. He was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim in a hospital at an army base in the village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East, not far from the Soviet-Korean border. The year of his birth was originally listed as 1941. In the early 1990s, it was changed to 1942, because that year is more auspicious and a better fit with Kim Il Sung’s birthday. All history books had be changed to reflect the new "reality." Many people in North Korea believe that Kim Jong Il delayed his birth year to be in tune the number 2 an even number and Kim Il Sung’s birth year of 1912. [Source: Choi Jin I,Daily NK, February 25, 2005, Choi is a North Korean defector and columnist and former poet with the Chosun Writer Union]

Through high school, Kim Jong Il was known as Yura, a Russian name. The first photographs of Kim, show him dressed as young boy in the uniform of a Soviet naval cadet. His younger brother also had a Russian nickname, Shura. He died in 1948 in drowning accident while swimming in a pond with Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyung Hee, was born in 1945.

Kim Jong Il’s mother died when he was seven (See Below). After his mother’s death and especially after Kim Il Sung remarried in 1963, Kim Jong Il complained that his father had no time for him. He was brought up primarily by nurses and tutors. During the Korean War he lived out of harms way in Manchuria with his sister.

Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine: Kim Il Sung was stationed” in Khabarovsk “as the commander of a Korean battalion in the Soviet Army 88th Brigade, which engaged in reconnaissance missions against Japanese troops. Because it would be inconvenient, for reasons of Korean nationalism, to have Kim born on foreign soil, his place and date of birth have been fabricated in official biographies. In 1945, after Japan was defeated and the northern half of Korea occupied by Soviet troops, Kim Il Sung was taken to Pyongyang by his Soviet benefactors and installed as the leader of North Korea. A few months later, the boys moved to Pyongyang, where their younger sister, Kim Kyung Hee, was born. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

“ Though well cared for — their father, after all, was North Korea's leader — Kim Jong Il and his little sister became de facto orphans: their mother dead, their father busy laying the groundwork for his socialist paradise. In 1950, the Korean War broke out, and the children were sent to the safety of Manchuria, where they stayed until the war ended in 1953. Kim was learning to survive on his own, which meant using his wits.”

Kim Jong Il’s Mother and Stepmother

Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk, a Korean guerrilla fighter and Christian from Manchuria who joined him in the Soviet Union, bore him three children, including Kim Jong Il. She died in 1949. Kim Jong Suk died at the age of 32 when Kim Jong Il was seven or eight years old. According to his official biography, she died at childbirth, although there have been rumors that she died of gunshot wounds. In 2002, Kim Jong Il told a Russian journalist his mother was “the most important person.” “My mother, who died when I was a boy, was a revolutionary fighter. I owe my mother a great debt of gratitude.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

In 1994, when Kim Jong Il became leader of North Korea, he launched a campaign to raise the status of his mother, calling his father Kim Il Sung, mother Kim Song Suk and himself the “the three generals of Mt. Paektu.” This deification of his mother helped to sure up his leadership claims. A 2002 document given members of the North Korean armed forces read “The respectable mother is the most loyal among infinitely faithful loyalists of the dear supreme commander.”

Choi Jin I wrote: In North Korea, Kim Jong Suk “is typified as a model of a revolutionary, wife, and maternal figure, and the whole society was to learn from her. Kim Jong Suk is good at sewing, cooking, fighting, shooting guns, riding horses, assisting her husband……. Anyway, there was nothing that Kim Jong Suk can’t do, they insisted. The feature that people in North Korea accept from this super, almighty figure of Kim Jong Suk that underneath all rhetoric that exists, lies not a Kim Jong Suk as a heroine, but a real figure of Kim Jong Suk as dry robot who has no warmth or emotion. But there were opportunities to understand Kim Jong Suk as a Human being. [Source: Choi Jin I, Daily NK, February 25, 2005, Choi is a North Korean defector and columnist and former poet with the Chosun Writer Union]

“In the early 1970s, anti-Japanese resistance fighter Whang Sun Hye came to recuperate at the home for honored soldiers in Whanghaenam Do Samchun Gun Dalchun, where I spent my childhood. She was the one who did the child corps work with Kim Jong Suk Once she mentioned the birth mother of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Suk, like this. “It was in early spring of 1933 if I remember right, It was the day that comrade Kim Jong Suk met comrade Kim Il Sung for the first time, she was too excited to sleep. Even though all other comrades had no special reactions……… Anyhow there was something in comrade Kim Jong Suk.” This signifies there must have been an initial chemical attraction between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk. At that time, other female members had no reaction. This fact presents that Kim Il Sung was not a valuable person to covet at the time...Kim Jong Suk married Kim Il Sung after a decade. It is impossible to put off their marriage for 10 years without a particular secret reason for lovers who fell in love at first sight.

Kim Il Sung married his second wife. Kim Song Ae, a typist, in 1963. She became a member of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee and bore Kim Il Sung sons. Kim Jong Il never accepted his father’s second wife Kim Song Are and the tow of them are said to have often quarrelled. "He had problems with his new mother when he was growing up and that coloured his relationships with women when he was older," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and author of a number of books on the North Korean leadership, told The Telegraph.

According to high-level defector Hwang Jang Yop, Kim Jong Il did not call Kim Song Ae his mother. “He used to call Kim Song Ae his aunt, considering her simply a woman who takes care of him,” Hwang said. In 1974 when Kim Jong Il was named as Kim Il Sung’s successor, Kim Song Ae and his half brothers were removed from the center of power.

Kim Jong Il's Education and Youth

Kim went to school in China. When the Korean War was over he returned to Pyongyang and graduated from Namsan Senior High School, an elite private school, and rode a motorcycle to class. In his senior year of high school he accompanied his father on an official trip to Moscow. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

The defector Hwang Jang Po, who also went on the trip, wrote: “Kim Jong Il was intelligent and full of curiosity, asking me many questions. Despite his young age, he already harbored political ambitions. He paid special attention to his father. Every morning he would help his father to get up and put on his shoes.” In the evening he assembled his father’s staff “and had them report to him about the things that happened during the day. He then proceeded to give orders.”

Kim Hyun-sik, a research professor at George Mason University in Virginia in the 2000s, was Kim Jong Il’s tutor when he 17. David McNeill wrote in The Independent: In 1959,” the professor, who Kim Il Sung had handpicked to tutor his family in Russian, summoned Kim Jnr, then 17, to take an oral test. Flustered and "with beads of sweat on his forehead", the boy endured the exam "without ever boasting that he was the son of the Great Leader". Years later after he had inherited his father's exclusive powers, Professor Kim alleges that the student would order his alma mater blown up to eliminate potential rivals to his own children. He describes Kim Jong-il as a "rather ordinary student" who excelled at nothing and made few friends. Just months after his test, Kim Jong-il's nervous, diffident demeanour disappeared as he showed off his Russian skills in front of the school's teachers. "As an educator, I was quite gratified," recalls his tutor.” [Source: David McNeill, The Independent, August 21, 2008]

At Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il graduated with a degree in political economics, helped farmers like other students, and was addressed as the “premier’s son”. He wrote theses on his father's ideas on socialist agriculture: "Let's Push Ahead with the Great leader Kim Il Sung's Will for Reunification of the Fatherland" and "Regarding Adherence of Self-reliance and Nationality in the Process of Revolution and Construction."

According to the myth as a university student he taught his teachers and "mastered all knowledge, and all his thoughts are studied at great world universities." After reading his thesis, the "professors and scholars, who were so strict about scientific matters, could not suppress their surging emotion, and approached the author who made immortal theoretical achievements, shaking his hands and congratulating him heartily and warmly...His thesis was highly assessed as an immortal document."

Kim Jong Il's Wives and Mothers of His Children

Kim Jong Il Kim Jong-il had long-term relationships with at least seven women, was officially married once and had five known children. He had an affair — and may have married — a college friend, Song Hye-rim (Sung Hae Rim), and had a son before they parted. She was married to another man who Kim forced to divorce her. “An avid theater- and movie-goer, Kim Jong Il met Sung after a performance. "She was so feminine, so poised; that's why he fell for her," Sung’s friend Kim Young-soon told the Los Angeles Times.

Sung was never official recognized as Kim’s wife and later fell out of favor with him. After she gave birth to Kim Jong Il’s son she started having “nervous disorders” and was shipped off in 1983 to a sanitarium in the Soviet Union and is believed to have lived in comfortable apartment in Moscow. Sung reportedly tried to defect in 1996 and died in Moscow in 2002. Her sister defected in 1996 and now lives in Europe. The sister is the mother of a defector who came to Seoul in 1982 and was shot dead under mysterious circumstances in 1997.

Kim Jong Il first "”official” wife was Kim Young Sook, the daughter of a senior Party official Kim Il Sung ordered him to marry. He began his marriage with her after have a son with Sung. Kim Young Sook bore Kim Jong Il a daughter. Although Kim Jong Il did not spend much time with his ''official'' wife, she remained loyal to him. She and their daughter has played no role in politics.

Kim Jong Il later fell for Ko Young Hui , an attractive dancer-actress from a Communist family that migrated from Japan to North Korea in the 1960s. She married to a physicist in 1967 when Kim Jong Il took an interest in her. He reportedly asked her to divorce her husband and move in with him. They didn’t marry but Kim Jong Il reported treated her like his wife, put her up in a villa and she gave birth to two sons and a daughter. She was referred to publicly and favorably in the North Korean media, suggesting that her sons were heirs to the North Korean leadership. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

Kim Jong Il's Children

Kim Jong Il reportedly has five children: three sons — Kim Jong Nam, Ko Jong Chul, Kim Jong Un — and two daughters — Kim Sul Song and Kim Yo Jong. Little is known about his daughters. There may be more unreported children. The Guardian reported he is rumoured to have fathered 13 illegitimate children.

Kim Jong Il’s first child was his son Kim Jong-nam (born 1971 to Sung Hae Rim, also spelled Song Hye-rim). His second child was his daughter Kim Sul-song (born 1974 to Kim Young-sook). Ko Young Hui had three children with Kim Jong Il. In 1981, she gave birth to son Kim Jong-chul, her first child with Kim. Her second child with Kim, Kim Jong-un, the present North Korean supreme leader, was born in 1982, 1983 or 1984. Their third child, Kim Yo-jong, a daughter, is believed to have been born in 1989 but her birth year is also listed as 1987.

A family photograph taken in 1981 shows Kim Jong Il seated with Kim Jong Nam. Standing behind them is Sung Hye- Rang (the sister of Sung Hye Rim, Kim Jong Il’s wife or mistress), her daughter Il Nam Ok and her son Il Han.

Kim Jong Nam was originally thought to be the heir to the North Korean leadership and then Kim Jong Chul but it was Kim Jong-un he became leader. Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2003: “In 2001, Kim Jong Nam was detained at Narita airport, outside Tokyo, as he was trying to enter the country with two women and a 4-year-old boy on a fraudulent passport from the Dominican Republic. He said he just wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He was expelled to China. Because, in part, of this embarrassment, Kim Jong Nam is no longer considered a front-runner for succession; two North Korea watchers in Seoul told me that he lives in China and is afraid to return to North Korea. It now appears that Kim Jong Chul, 22, the Dear Leader's son by his mistress Ko Young Hee, is first in line for succession.” [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

Kim Jong Il's First Love: Sung Hye- Rim

Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “While at high school, Kim Jong Il had a close friend whose older brother was married to a particularly attractive young woman,Sung Hye- Rim. At the time she was 19. Kim noticed her beauty, as teenage boys do, but nothing came of it until he graduated from college.” During one visit to a film studio, “he again noticed Sung Hye- Rim, who had become an actress and was usually cast in the role of a heroine. One thing led to another, and Kim fell in love. Inconveniently, Sung Hye- Rim was married and had a child, but according to her sister, Sung Hye- Rang, who defected in 1996 and recently published a memoir in Korean, Kim forced Sung to leave her husband and live with him. [Source: Peter Maass, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003]

“It was a strange and tragic situation. Kim could not marry Sung because of her previous marriage, her child and the fact that she was six years his senior; in a Confucian society, a match of that sort would be frowned upon, especially for a man who was to inherit a nation. Kim did not even feel safe telling his strait-laced father about his new love; the affair could bump him off the fast track to succession.

Sung Hye Rim ended up getting the shaft, which can be particularly nasty in North Korea. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kim didn't even tell his father about Sung's existence. Not long after the two began living together, Kim Il Sung ordered his son to marry Kim Young Sook... The two women, experts believe, lived in separate palaces, and it remains unclear how much Kim Young Sook knew of her competitor, who gave birth to Kim Jong Il's first son, Kim Jong Nam. The boy was kept secret from Kim Il Sung for years, expert say. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2011]

“Divorced, five years older than Kim Jong Il, Sung eventually became a potential palace embarrassment. The North Korean secret police imprisoned many of Sung's friends and family members for fear they would spread word of the relationship, Jang and others said. Those jailed included Sung's best friend, Kim Young-soon, who along with her entire family was dispatched to a concertina-wired gulag, where her parents, husband and son died. Experts say Sung became terrified of Kim Jong Il's fits of rage and fled to Russia, where she died in 2002.

“According to Sung Hye- Rang's memoir, which is called ''Wisteria House,'' her sister was moved to one of Kim's secluded villas and rarely traveled outside of it. In 1971, she became pregnant. This posed a logistical inconvenience, because Kim could not visit the hospital where she gave birth. To do so would reveal to prying eyes that he was the father of an illegitimate child. "The rumor was that Sung Hye Rim was in the hospital giving birth to Jong Nam when the wife showed up," Breen said. "They had to sneak her out a window and hide her in the bushes."

“Sung's sister wrote that Kim and Sung arranged a covert system to inform him of his child's birth and its sex. Kim parked his car outside the hospital every night she was there and flicked his lights on and off to signal that it was he. Once the baby was born, Sung signaled back the birth of the child and its sex by flicking the room's light on and off in a prearranged sequence.

“The child was a boy, and he was named Kim Jong Nam. Within a few years of his birth, Sung Hye- Rim began suffering insomnia and other nervous disorders. She was sent to Moscow for treatment at sanitariums and spent most of the remainder of her life there; she died in Russia in 2002. When her sister left for Moscow, Sung Hye- Rang was put in charge of the boy's upbringing. Though it became known in Pyongyang that he was Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Nam remained cloistered at different villas and was eventually sent with Song Hae Rang and her son, Lee Il Nam, to Geneva, where Kim Jong Nam was enrolled at a private school. Lee Il Nam disappeared from Geneva and emerged later in Seoul. He wrote a memoir about his life in the Dear Leader's household, and in 1997 he was killed in what South Korean officials say was an assassination by North Korean agents.

Sung Hye- Rim’s Best Friend Imprisoned for What She Knew

Kim Young-soon was imprisoned many years in North Korea and ultimately escaped and defected to South Korea, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il “destroyed her life, and killed her family. In the 1970s, on a whim, the mercurial strongman sent her entire family to the Yodeok Political Offenders' Concentration Camp. The move was a virtual death sentence because few of the unfortunates sent there ever return alive. She only found out years later what her crime was. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2011]

“Born in 1937, Kim Young-soon was a trained dancer and a close friend with Sung Hye-rim, the first wife of Kim Jong Il. The marriage circumstances were scandalous: Sung was already married, with a child, whom she left to be with Kim – who was five years her junior. Pyongyang officials worried that the sordid details of the union wouldn't exactly make school textbook reading. So the regime did the kind of unspeakable things that regimes do. They rounded up everyone who ever knew Sung Hye-rim and sent them to prison. Kim Young-soon was part of the roundup.

“She spent a decade in cruel confinement, and she was lucky. Her parents died in the prison camp. So did her husband and eldest son. Her younger son was later shot to death trying to escape North Korea. Kim Young-soon survived the concentration camp. Years later, at the age of 65, she defected to South Korea and later wrote a 2008 book about her experiences entitled "I was Sung Hye-rim's Friend," in which she described her own fate at the hands of a dictator she had never met:

"I was best friends with Sung Hye-rim, Kim Jong Il's first wife. We were the same age and we attended the same junior high. Sung was a popular actress who was five years older than Kim. Kim Jong Il lost his mother at an early age, so this might be the reason why he was attracted to an older woman. Kim Jong Il is short, and he always wore shoes with about 3 inches of heel. Sung was a divorcee with a daughter. Kim Jong Il did not tell Kim Il-sung that he is living with a (once) married woman.

"I was sent to Yodeok prison camp because I knew Kim Jong Il was with Sung Hye-rim. Even Kim Il-sung [Kim's father and then ruler of the nation] was not aware of Kim Jong Il's relationship with Sung. Kim Jong Il, a would-be No.1 leader of the republic, was in a relationship with a (once) married woman would be a huge scandal, and Kim Jong Il tried to keep the highest security."

“Once, in prison, she met another luckless family. The wife's relative had worked in a hospital where Sung Hye-rim gave birth to the strongman's first son. She gossiped about what she saw, alerting the state security officials. To quash rumors about the birth, countless numbers of the woman's family members of hospital workers were sent off to jail. That's when Kim Young-soon realized why her life had been stolen.

Ko Yong-hui: Kim Jong Il’s Mistress and Kim Jong Un’s Mother

Ko Young Hui, a former professional folk dancer, is mother of Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Chol, Kim Jong Il’s middle son, and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s visible and powerful younger sister. Ko Young Hui, was born in Osaka, Japan in 1952 and spent some time in South Korea. It is not clear whether she married Kim Jong Il. Maybe she did in 1977. Her father worked a sewing machine factory and was a judo instructor and failed professional wrestler. Ko is believed to have met Kim Jong Il at one of her troupe’s performances. She died in Paris of breast cancer at the age of 51 in 2004.

Ko Yong-hui, also spelled Ko Young-hee, is referred to in North Korea only by titles, such as "The Respected Mother who is the Most Faithful and Loyal 'Subject' to the Dear Leader Comrade Supreme Commander", "The Mother of Pyongyang", and "The Mother of Great Songun Korea." Her father was Korean and her mother was Japanese. Under North Korea's songbun social status system, Ko's Korean-Japanese parentage placed her in the lowest "hostile" class. On top of this the factory her father worked for was rune by the Imperial Japanese Army, placing her at the lowest of the low.

Ko’s father Kim Tae-mun was born on Jeju Island in 1920 while Korea was under Japanese occupation and moved to join his father in the Tsuruhashi district in Osaka, known for its concentration of ethnic Koreans, in the 1930s. There he learned judo and became one of the most famous and skilled Korean judo athletes. Because of his prowess in judo, Kim Tae-mun and his family moved to Pyongyang in 1961 or 62 as part of Kim Il-sung’s program initiated in December 1959 to repatriate ethnic Koreans living in Japan to North Korea. He became so famous in Pyongyang that even today he’s known as the “father of North Korean judo.” Because of his increased influence and promotion in songbun levels, the graceful Young-hee was able to join the Mansudae Art Troup in around 1970. [Source: Darcie Draudt,, July 16, 2012]

Kokita Kiyohtio, writer at the Asahi Shimbun, called Ko a North Korean Cinderella, rising from humble beginnings in Osaka to become consort to the Dear Leader. Her younger sister Ko Yong-suk sought asylum from the U.S. embassy in Bern, Switzerland while she was living there taking care of Kim Jong-un during his school days, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service; U.S. officials arranged Ko Yong-suk's departure from the country without consulting South Korean officials. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the New York Times: “A delicate beauty, Koh caught the eye of Kim Jong Il when her dance troupe performed at one of his private parties. Enchanted, Kim, who already had two mistresses at the time, installed her at one of his villas. "Koh Young Hee has his heart, he loves her very much," a Japanese sushi chef, who worked until 2001 for Kim Jong Il, said in an interview. "I don't think he has another woman." "I once was walking on the beach and I saw him sitting on a chair, and Koh Young Hee was cutting his hair," he wrote in his book, “Kim Jong Il's Private Life”, published in Japanese in 2004 under the pseudonym of Kenji Fujimoto. "It was such a sweet scene that I asked my wife to cut my hair...She was the only one who could tell him 'no.’ I have never seen anyone say no to Kim Jong Il, not even high-ranking officials." [Source: New York Times, August 28, 2004]

"She was the one Kim loved most," Jang Sung-min, author of the book "War and Peace: Where Is North Korea Headed After Kim Jong Il?" told the Los Angeles Times. Once, after Kim had sentenced his brother-in-law, Jang Sung Taek, to house arrest, Ko talked the strongman into granting his relatively early release, Jang asserted. "She told Kim: 'Set him free. You need his talent,'" the author said. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2011]

Ko Yong-hui’s Death

In October 2003, Japanese newspaper reported that Ko Young Hee was seriously injured in a car crash. In August 2004, various sources reported that she had died in Paris, probably of breast cancer. However, the New York Times reported that she was treated in Paris in the spring of 2004 and flown back to Pyongyang where she fell into a coma and died in August 2004.

The New York Times reported: Ko “was treated in Paris last spring for advanced cancer. Over the summer, Koh was flown back to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where she fell into a coma. The Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun reported recently that North Korean diplomats in Paris purchased an "extremely expensive" coffin and shipped it to Pyongyang by charter flight. [Source: New York Times, August 28, 2004]

“In signs that something might be amiss, North Korea two weeks ago unexpectedly closed its northern border to foreign tourists, a major source of foreign exchange. Then on Sunday, local telephone service in the Pyongyang area inexplicably went out of service. ...Cho Gab-je, a South Korean journalist who specializes in the North, said on his Web site on Tuesday. "Some say this death would have serious psychological effects on Kim.

“Kim, who has heart problems, had been refraining from drinking on Koh's advice." Kim Duk Hong, a high-ranking North Korean defector who maintains a North Korean information network in China's border area, said in an interview: "I am sure Koh Young Hee is now deceased. But since calls made and received by North Korea residents are cut off, I can only guess that North Korea is trying to block the news from spreading."

“In addition to removing a brake on the mercurial leader's impulses, the death of North Korea's "great woman" complicates the succession issue in the communist world's first dynasty. Two years ago, North Korea's military propaganda machine started to promote Kim Jong Il's favorite mistress, prompting speculation that one of her two sons, Kim Jong Chul, 23, or Kim Jong Un 21, was being groomed as the North Korean leader's heir-apparent. If Koh Young Hee had not died at this moment, one of her two sons would be a high candidate for successor," said Kim, who defected in 1997. "But now that she is dead, all three sons are in the same position."”

Ko Yong-hui Cult of Personality

In 2012, after he was firmly established as the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un built a grave for Ko at the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemeteryon Mt. Taesong and began an effort to “canonize” her with the screening of the film “The Mother of Great Military-First Korea” about her for the top echelons of the military and Workers' Party of Korea, which features her voice and video images and places associated with her. In the film she is called “dear comrade” and “Our Respected Mother” and referred to by the name "Lee Eun-mi". [Source: Daily Yomiuri, June 30, 2012]

Cho Jong Ik wrote in “A close reading of” the film “reveals that the North Korean authorities are planning to elevate her to the same propaganda pantheon as Kang Ban Seok (Kim Il Sung’s mother) and Kim Jong Suk (Kim Jong Il’s mother), creating a triumvirate of “strong women” buttressing the legitimacy of the Mt. Baekdu line. The propaganda documentary film, 85 minutes in length, was made by an arm of the Chosun Workers Party Central Committee last year and then premiered for high-ranking cadres in May. It is comprised of videos and photos of Koh mixed in with footage of natural scenes and overlain with a number of songs. Koh can be seen accompanying Kim Jong Il on various onsite guidance visits, playing the role of queen to Kim Jong Il’s king. A narrator frequently alludes to the words of Kim Jong Il in describing Koh’s virtues. [Source: Cho Jong Ik,, June 6, 2012]

“Notably, at one point the two visit North Hamkyung Province to see ‘historical sites’ related to Kim Jong Suk in Hoiryeong. There, the narrator asserts that Koh Young Hee is carrying on the tradition of Kang Ban Seok and Kim Jong Suk. In the latter half of the film there is also a scene in which Koh gives an address at her 50th birthday event in 2001, marking the first time that her voice has been heard publicly. She says, “The General said to me once, ‘You must tell the people. Tell them how hard these past seven years (1994-2001) have been for me’. I have seen personally the unmatchable General’s difficult 7 years.”

“Clearly, the objective of the documentary film is to generate the idolization of Kim Jong Eun through that of Koh. However, her real name never appears once in the film. Instead phrases like, ‘Mother of Chosun’ and ‘Great Mother’ are used. It appears that the authorities are neither willing nor able to reveal her name or personal details at this stage. Professor Lee Young Hwa of Kansai University explained on this point, “Straight after Kim Jong Il’s death, the group dealing with Kim Jong Eun’s succession urgently designated Koh Young Hee’s name and personal information as state secrets, stating that anyone who violates the rules will be harshly punished.” At the premier targeting top cadres, the moderator used the name Lee Eun Mi to refer to the main character in the film, and did not say a word about her personal history.” Prior to the film there were three attempts made to idolize Ko, in a style similar to that associated with Kang Pan-sok, mother of Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-suk, mother of Kim Jong-il and the first wife of Kim Il-sung. These previous attempts at idolization failed and were stopped after Kim Jong-il's 2008 stroke. The building of a cult of personality around Ko encounters the problem of her bad songbun, even though it is usually passed on by the father. Making her identity public would undermine the Kim dynasty's pure bloodline, and after Kim Jong-il's death, her personal information, including name, became state secrets. Ko's real name and other personal details have not been publicly revealed in North Korea, and she is referred to as "Mother of Great Songun Korea" or "Great Mother". [Source: Wikipedia]

Kim Ok: North Korea’s First Lady

After Ko's death in 2004, Kim lived with Kim Ok, who had been his personal secretary since the 1980s and took over the responsibilities of the "First Lady." The Guardian reported: “Ms Kim, 42, "virtually acts as North Korea's first lady", and frequently accompanied the communist leader on his visits to military bases and meetings with foreign dignitaries, Yonhap said. She also travelled with him on a secretive trip to China in January, when she was received by officials as Mr Kim's wife, the report said. Ms Kim also met the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, it said. "She is a cute woman rather than a beauty like the leader's previous wives or live-in women," another source said. “Little is known about Ms Kim, except that she studied piano at the North's elite Pyongyang University of Music and Dance. It is not known whether she has any children by the North Korean leader, who is known to have three sons - one from his second wife, two from his third. [Source: The Guardian, July 24, 2006]

As Kim Jong Il became sicker in the last years of his life and term as North Korea’s leader, especially after he had a stroke in 2008, there was some speculation that maybe Kim Ok was playing a major role behind the scenes. Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: South Korean officials are keeping a close eye on Kim Ok amid some intelligence reports that she's not only nursing the ailing leader but also is signing official documents on his behalf. Experts believe the communist leader is retaining a firm grip on power, running the nation from his bed with the help of military and communist party chiefs in line with the nation's "songun," or military first, policy. But they are not discounting the role of the woman who is seen by some as the de-facto first lady. "She is the closest person personally to Kim Jong Il," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "In some ways, she's the one guarding the bedroom or hospital door. She would be in a position to convey his preferences." [Source: Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, September 17, 2008]

“Kim, 66, reportedly suffered a stroke last month and is recuperating following emergency brain surgery — though North Korean officials deny the communist leader, who was last seen in public more than a month ago, is ill And Kim Ok may be poised to fill any void. Experts speculate the North Korean leader's dependence on her during his illness may further bolster her political clout. "If Kim Jong Il can't communicate with others, her role will be larger," said Kang Jung-mo, a North Korea expert at Kyung Hee University.

One South Korean intelligence officer said agents are keeping a close eye on traffic about Kim Ok, including indications she is signing some official documents on his behalf. He spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with department policy. South Korea's Unification Ministry said it has some intelligence on Kim Ok but cannot confirm reports on her growing influence. The South's National Intelligence Service also said it could not confirm the reports.

Limited Role of Women in Kim Jong Il’s Life

But over all women appear to have played a limited role in policy making under Kim Jong Il or his father or son. Kim Jong Il lived with at least four women, none of whom has ever shown up in public. When he entertained hundreds leader Kim Dae Jung and his wife at the historic the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, he did so alone. "It's a bit odd in terms of international diplomacy but North Korea always does its own thing," Michael Breen, the author of the biography, "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader", told AFP. "The private lives of their leaders are kept very private. We probably know more about Kim Jong-il than North Koreans do," he said. [Source: Shaun Tandon, AFP Thursday, October 4, 2007]

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kim reportedly took countless lovers, especially after he assumed control of the regime after his father's death in 1994...There were four women whose intimacy with the strongman endured. In all, they bore Kim at least six children...That intimacy rarely translated to any real influence with the dictator. Although a high-profile woman has taken center stage in the Kim succession narrative, for the most part, the four lovers endured a life behind the scenes, prisoners in a gilded cage. "The women of the palace didn't really have a serious role," said Michael Breen, author of the book "Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader." "They might have had pillow-talk influence — you know, 'I don't like this person' or 'I really like that one' — but their roles were predominantly domestic and romantic." Most palace women were relegated to background status. "These women were treated like in some long-ago Korean dynasty," Jang said. "Their role was like some Muslim women today: kept behind closed doors, dominated by men."[Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2011]

“Kim's last lengthy relationship featured a fierce female companion. Kim Ok, who Kim's caretaker after his stroke in 2008 and enjoyed sway unknown by her predecessors, giving direct orders to or scolding regime officials. Rumors have it that she may have given Kim Jong Il a daughter, according to Korean news reports. Kim Ok accompanied Kim Jong Il on a trip to China shortly before his death.

'Pleasure Brigades' of Kim Jong il

Kim Jong Il was reportedly entertained and received sexual services from a group of attractive young men known as the Pleasure Brigade or Pleasure Squad. Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University told the National, the young women in the Pleasure Brigades were employees of the state whose work in many cases equated to other forms of mandatory service, such as military duty. "Unlike a capitalistic country, [Pleasure Brigades] are managed on a state level," Mr Koh said. "They are not only for Kim Jong Il, but also for other senior cadre. They serve at official functions of the ruling class." [Source: Sunny Lee, The National, January 28, 2010]

Sunny Lee wrote in The National: “It is not known how many women work in this way for Mr Kim and the rulers, but various South Korean media estimate 2,000. Apart from sexual services, the women provide massages and dance and sing. Mi Hyang” — a North Korean defector who said she was a Pleasure Brigade Member and published an account of expereince online — described how she was recruited. "I was 15 when two officers in their forties visited my school. They inspected all the female students and put aside some of them, including me, and made a detailed record of my family history and school record. I was asked whether I ever slept with a boy. I felt so ashamed to hear such a question.

“"Those over 165cm [tall] are excluded because Kim Jong Il is short," she said, adding that the candidate's body should not have any scars or blemishes and their voice should be soft and feminine. They also undergo a thorough medical examination. Across the country, 30 to 40 students are chosen annually as final candidates, including 15 males who serve as farmhands or household servants to Mr Kim. The new recruits undergo six months of training before they are "interviewed" by Mr Kim, who then decides whether he likes them. If they are chosen they can serve him until the age of 25, when they retire from duty. Before Mi Hyang met Mr Kim, she was required to write a pledge of allegiance with blood from her finger vowing to "To serve loyally".

“During their service to Mr Kim, which usually lasts 10 years, servants are not allowed to contact their families. Mi Hyang's service was cut short when her family was accused of treason and ordered to be executed. Mr Kim, she said, instructed that she not be killed. "I was told that he gave an order not to kill me. Perhaps, I owe him my life," Mi Hyang said. Shortly after that she fled. Mi Hyang said she never slept with Mr Kim. She also said he gave her a new name. "He said my original name sounded like a countryside girl and gave me a new name, 'Mi Hyang', which has since been registered in all my official records."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, The Telegraph, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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