The Royal House of Kim

Anna Fifield of the Washington Post found Kim Jong Un’s aunt and uncle and profiled them at length. Ko Yong Suk was the sister of Ko Yong Hui, who was one of Kim Jong Il’s wives and the mother of Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader of North Korea. She and her husband were close to the Kim family, living in the same compound in Pyongyang, raising their sons together, and taking care of the future leader when he was at school in Switzerland. But when Ko Yong Hui got cancer, her sister and brother-in-law worried about what might happen to them if she died. So they managed to get out of North Korea and eventually made it to the United States, where they now run a dry cleaning store somewhere in the eastern part of the country.

But read Fifield’s story, and see if it isn’t a familiar story of royal intrigue and excess while peasants starve:

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 United States….

Traveling on a diplomatic passport, Ri went back and forth between North Korea and Switzerland, sometimes ferrying their youngest daughter and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister back and forth.

The family spoke Korean at home and ate Korean food but also enjoyed the benefits of an expatriate family in an exotic locale. Ko took the Kim children to Euro Disney, now Disneyland Paris. Kim Jong Un had been to Tokyo Disneyland with his mother some years before — and her photo albums are full of pictures of them skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming on the French Riviera, eating at al fresco restaurants in Italy….

The world did not know that Kim had been anointed his father’s successor until October 2010, when his status was made official at a Workers’ Party conference in Pyongyang. But Kim had known since 1992 that he would one day inherit North Korea.

The signal was sent at his eighth birthday party, attended by North Korea’s top brass, the couple said. Kim was given a general’s uniform decorated with stars, and real generals with real stars bowed to him and paid their respects to him from that moment on.

“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said….

“We lived the good life,” Ko said. Over a sushi lunch in New York, she reminisced about drinking cognac with sparkling water and eating caviar in Pyongyang, about riding with Kim Jong Il in his Mercedes-Benz….

Stories about the couple in the South Korean news media have suggested that they sought asylum in the United States because they were concerned about what could happen to them after either of Kim Jong Un’s parents died. This was their link to the royal family, and without that link, what would happen to them?

Walking through Central Park on a bright Sunday morning, Ko seemed to imply that this was a concern.

“In history, you often see people close to a powerful leader getting into unintended trouble because of other people,” she said. “I thought it would be better if we stayed out of that kind of trouble.”

They had reason to be scared, given Ko’s sister’s position, said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website.

“Ko Yong Hui was an ambitious woman — she wanted her sons to be promoted, and she made enemies in the process,” Madden said. “If you were her sister or her brother-in-law, you would feel threatened. Someone could easily make you disappear.”

The courts of Richard III, Henry VIII, and Caligula had nothing on the House of Kim. And indeed the House of Kim can live better than those earlier monarchs, because now royals can enjoy cognac, caviar, Mercedes-Benz, movie theaters, and travel to the Swiss Alps, Euro Disney, the French Riviera, and Italian cafes.