SEOUL (Reuters) - Kim Kyong-hui has battled alcoholism and the killing of her lover to stand alongside her nephew, North Korea’s youthful leader Kim Jong-un, as a reminder that he is the true heir of the dynasty’s blood-line.
The 67-year-old daughter of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung cuts a rare female figure in Pyongyang’s male-dominated hierarchy and ranks as a four-star general, often sporting her trademark dark glasses at important events.
She is married to Jang Song-thaek, seen as the second most powerful man in the North, who has survived purges and official displeasure to reach the pinnacle of his career, thanks largely to his sometimes tempestuous marriage to Kim.
This Pyongyang power couple has formed a kind of regency in the obscurantist political world of the North behind its young and mercurial leader, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.
In recent weeks, the 30-year-old dictator has threatened the United States with nuclear attack, declared a “state of war” with South Korea and announced he was restarting a plutonium reactor at the Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant - all on top of conducting a third nuclear test in February and a long-range rocket test in December.
The couple’s reach is augmented by their control over the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s secret funds that handle the Kim family’s finances both at home and abroad, according to An Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South and has become an expert on the North’s power elite.
North Korea is one of the most heavily sanctioned states, and uses its diplomats to smuggle cash and contraband, according to South Korean officials and experts on its opaque finances.
Kim Jong-un’s aunt rarely appeared in public until it was clear to the Pyongyang elite in 2010 that former ruler Kim Jong-il’s health was deteriorating rapidly.
Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean member of parliament who has met Jang Song-thaek, said that while Kim Kyong-hui was a hugely symbolic figure for North Korea as the daughter of the revolutionary leader, she would not otherwise be a public figure. “If Kim Kyong-hui, a woman in a very male dominated society like North Korea, has to go around showing her face on camera, then things must be really desperate,” Jang said.
Kyong-hui’s mother died in her 30s in 1948. With Kim Il-sung soon plotting the 1950 Korean War and later remarriage, Kyong-hui and her brother Jong-il were left to form close bonds, according to Hwang Jang-yop, a former Workers’ Party secretary and the most senior North Korean to defect.
Hwang was an ideologue who helped Kim Il-sung formulate the country’s Juche philosophy that fuses Marxism, extreme nationalism and a call for self sufficiency. Hwang, who died in South Korea in 2010, was a close family friend of Jang and Kim, and his son would later marry Jang’s niece.
One of Kyong-hui’s brothers was reported to have died at a young age in a swimming accident at a family villa in Pyongyang, according to another North defector. “Kim Jong-il is extremely close to Kim Kyong-hui, his little sister,” Hwang wrote in a recollection of the ruling family. Other North Koreans confirmed the siblings’ closeness and said Kyong-hui occupied a crucial role between her father and brother.
Kim Jong-il supported her when her father opposed her decision to marry, said Jang Jin-song, a North Korean defector who previously worked at the Workers’ Party United Front Department, a propaganda unit tasked with destabilising South Korea. “But she was also very distrustful of him (Kim Jong-il),” Jang said, recalling she was caught in a power struggle between father and son as the junior Kim was being groomed to succeed on Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994.
“It’s around this time that she started drinking,” said Jang, who said he had seen Kim and her husband bicker at public functions while he was working as a state TV reporter. Jang defected to the South in 2004 and now works as a writer.
While the love-hate relationship between Kyong-hui and her late brother can no longer harm North Korea’s new leader, her troubled marriage to Jang could, according to defectors and experts on the North.
Jang, 67, has survived purges and been rehabilitated to stand at the peak of power as Vice Chairman of the National Defence Commission, the country’s top military body, and is a member of the ruling Workers’ Party Politburo. Recently, Pak Pong-ju, a close ally of Jang, was appointed prime minister, making a comeback from an earlier purge and further cementing the influential uncle’s power. Pak was previously director of the Worker’s Party Light Industry Department, where he succeeded Kim Kyong-hui.
“Jang is both the greatest benefactor and the greatest threat (to Kim Jong-un)”, said Park Hyeong-jung at the state-run Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul, who has extensively studied the North’s ruling elite.
Kim and Jang met when they were students at Kim Il-sung University. He had good looks and charm, was popular and outgoing, known more for partying and deftness with the accordion than his academic achievements, said Hwang, the senior defector, who was head of the school at the time. “I thought she was just young before, but then realised she was very confident and determined,” Hwang said of Kim.
Her future husband’s humble background made Jang a less than ideal suitor for the headstrong daughter of North Korea’s founder. Yet Kim Kyong-hui did not let her father’s objections stop her from marrying - with the help of her brother, said Jang Jin-song, the defector.
The marriage was not a happy one, said Jang Jin-song. As Jang Song-thaek started rising through the ranks of the Workers’ Party, he became less attentive to his family. It was an open secret that he partied hard and womanised, said defectors now in Seoul and South Korean politicians who met Jang on a 2002 visit as part of an economic delegation touring the South’s industrial successes.
Their daughter Kum-song, died in an apparent suicide while attending school in France, ironically because her parents objected to her boyfriend, according to Jang Jin-song.
Kim Kyong-hui herself had an affair with a young pianist, Kim Song-ho, who taught her daughter, according to Jang, who recalled that a classmate of his at the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance had been a rival for Kim’s affections. The piano teacher, a former child prodigy and household name, and who was 10 years younger than his paramour, would soon disappear. Kyong-hui would be told he had committed suicide.
But Jang the defector said Kim knew her husband had her lover killed, one of a vast number of people who fell victim to a reign of terror Jang Song-thaek orchestrated in the late 1990s to bolster the power of his brother-in-law.
Kim and Jang, while never divorcing, would separate.
Before he became the power behind the throne under Kim Jong-un, Jang was ejected from the elite in 2004 for angering Kim Jong-il by hosting lavish parties, according to media reports and assessments by South Korean think-tanks. Two years later, he was back, and in 2011 was widely credited with orchestrating the ouster of Army chief of staff, Ri Yong-ho, a major rival who had been a loyal aide to the father of Pyongyang’s current leader.
“It is Jang who is pulling the strings of people,” Han Ki-beom, a long-time North Korea specialist at the South’s spy agency, wrote in a paper on Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Han has been tapped to be deputy director of the National Intelligence Service by South Korean President Park Geun-hye. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
The power of the husband and wife team at Kim Jong-un’s side could spell trouble for their nephew should the army seek revenge for a series of purges of senior military officials over the past year, said Jang Sung-min, the former deputy and aide to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung - who boosted ties with the North through his Sunshine Policy and visited Pyongyang in 2000 for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il.
“Kim Kyong-hui’s source of power is her blood relationship to Kim Il-sung and being the sister of the ‘Dear General’ (Kim Jong-il). Jang Song-thaek’s source of power is her,” said Jang Sung-min.
“When Kim Kyong-hui dies, it will deal a serious blow to the power base of Jang Song-thaek and Kim Jong-un.”
Additional reporting by Narae Kim; Editing by David Chance, Bill Tarrant and Ian Geoghegan