During his 49-year reign, Kim Il Sung elevated himself to semidivine status as "Great Leader" and raised nepotism to new heights. His younger brother, Kim Yong Ju, advanced to a high-raking position in the ruling Korean Workers' Party, or KWP, and other relatives were given important posts in the state and party machinery.
Kim Il Sung's first wife died in 1949, and in 1962 he married his former secretary, Kim Song Ae, who became chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Union of Korea, a mass organization. One of their three sons, Kim Pyong Il (named after the son born in Vyatskoye in 1944, who drowned in Pyongyang in 1947), has served as ambassador to several European countries. One of their daughters is married to an army general.
In 1977, Kim Il Sung publicly anointed Kim Jong Il, known as the "Dear Leader," as his successor, creating the world's first hereditary Stalinist dictatorship. Since the Great Leader's death in 1994, the Dear Leader has followed in his father's footsteps, appointing family members to high positions in the state and party hierarchy.
His sister, Kim Kyong Hui--who was born in Pyongyang after the war--sits on the KWP's central committee and is director of its light industry department. Her husband, Chang Song Taek, heads the KWP's organizational department and has led several trade missions to South Korea. Chang's elder brother, Gen. Chang Song U, commands the army district that defends Pyongyang.
Chang Song Taek has proven himself exceptionally useful. He is "the person who first suggested the idea of smuggling operations as a way of financing North Korean embassies abroad" in the mid-1970s, according Helen-Louise Hunter, a former analyst with the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who wrote a book on North Korea. Since then, the North's embassies have been dealing in contraband from liquor to drugs to counterfeit money. Korea expert Roald Savelyev, who served in the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, says Chang then headed the Department of the Three Revolutions, responsible for organization and propaganda work among youth. His main task there was to enhance the position of his brother-in-law, Kim Jong Il.
And the next generation? Kim Jong Il has fathered at least six children by four women. Eldest son Kim Jong Nam, 32, was long considered the heir-apparent and put in charge of the Korea Computer Centre, believed to be North Korea's cyber-warfare hub, outside Pyongyang. But in April 2001, he fell from grace after he was arrested at Tokyo airport for trying to enter Japan on a Dominican Republic passport. He claimed he was taking some Kim children to Tokyo Disneyland. These days, Kim Jong Nam is said to be spending most of his time in Macau's casinos. His mother, Song Hye Rim, a former actress whom Kim never formally recognized as his wife, died in exile in Moscow last year.
Since then, another son seems to be rising: Kim Jong Chul, 22. He was educated at a private international school in Switzerland and now serves as a key official in the KWP's Department of Agitation and Propaganda. His mother, Koh Young Hee, a former dancer in the state-sponsored Mansudae Art Troupe, also is not formally married to Kim Jong Il. But in August last year, she was described in a North Korean official document as "the Respected Mother" and "the most faithful and loyal subject to the Dear Leader Comrade Supreme Commander." Kang Il Duk, a former South Korean unification minister, told South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper in February that the current campaign idolizing Koh "reminds one of the campaign elevating Kim Jong Il's mother, Kim Chong Suk, to the pantheon of heroes that preceded his ascension to power on his father's death."
The myth-making may be about to begin around the third generation of Kims. In the make-believe past of the Kim dynasty, reality is left in the recesses--not even to be visited. In the summer of 2001, Kim Jong Il went on a 24-day train journey from North Korea across Russia to Moscow. His private train stopped at Khabarovsk, but Kim made it clear to his Russian hosts that he was not interested in visiting Vyatskoye.
This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July 10, 2003
Asia Pacific Media Services is a non-profit media organisation and not a commercial enterprise. We are freelance journalists who make our living from writing for other outlets. We do get paid for published articles but research and investigations take time and are costly. If you enjoy this website and its links, a donation, no matter how small or large, would be much appreciated and will go directly to supporting our ability to continue investigating and writing independently on issues such as organised crime, ethnic and political insurgencies, and regional security. Donations will be channelled through the PayPal account of our chief correspondent, Mr. Bertil Lintner. We are grateful for the support of our readers.