Keeping Up with the Kim Family Runaways

Ko Yong Suk and her husband Pak Kun, an aunt and uncle of Kim Jong Un, attracted international headlines for filing a slander lawsuit in late November against a trio of North Korean defectors. The South Korean legal action provided a rare glimpse—outside of official North Korean media content—into the family life of the supreme leader,[1] including a reminder that two close relatives of North Korea’s leader have lived in the United States for 17 years.

At dispute in the case are interpretations and characterizations that the three relatively high-level defectors made to South Korean media in 2013 and 2014. Adding to the story’s allure are reports that Pak Kun (now called Lee Kang) flew into South Korea, where he furtively retained an attorney and authorized the civil action before returning to the United States.[2] In a later interview with ROK media, Pak discussed the 1998 defection he carried out with his wife.[3]

Personal details about the Kim family could emerge if the lawsuit proceeds to discovery phase, giving the story a voyeuristic element that rivals an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Aside from its tabloid appeal, the couple’s dispute with the other defectors highlights fundamental issues about how we study and understand North Korea, its political culture and the personal lives of its ruling families.

Figure 1. Kim Jong Un’s condensed lineage.

Image: Michael Madden/North Korea Leadership Watch.
Image: Michael Madden/North Korea Leadership Watch.

Ko Yong Suk was the younger sister of Kim Jong Un’s late mother[4] and the preferred consort of his father, Kim Jong Il. Ko and her husband made frequent family visits to Kim Jong Il’s residences, where their children played with Kim Jong Un and his older brother Kim Jong Chol. During the 1990s, the couple was relocated to Switzerland, where Ko was tasked to care for Kim Jong Un and his two siblings while they attended school in Berne.[5] Meanwhile, her husband may have helped smuggle contraband for the Kim family as part of the regime’s “Third Floor” apparatus.[6]

Ko and Pak decided to defect from the DPRK around 1997.[7] Amid the bloody power politics practiced in Pyongyang, the February shooting death of a high-profile defector in South Korea may have contributed to the couple’s decision to defect to the United States, rather than to the ROK or a European country.[8] The ROK government, for its part, did not learn about Ko’s defection until well after she had arrived and established residence in the United States.

The circumstances and motivation behind the couple’s defection remained murky prior to the current legal action.[9] In a recent media interview, Pak stated that he and his wife feared being killed due to DPRK political machinations.[10] Their lawsuit does not seem to have a financial motive; if it did, they would likely have included additional defendants and sued for more money. And by allowing their legal representative to announce their lawsuit in the press (rather than letting reporters discover it by searching through court dockets), Ko and Pak deliberately disrupted the anonymity under which they had lived since their defection almost 20 years ago. It appears, then, that their motivation is most likely to prevent defectors, and possibly other ROK-based Pyongyang watchers, from making baseless accusations against them and, by proxy, the Kim family and the DPRK government. A deeper understanding of the action requires looking at the specific allegations under question.

Did Ko and Pak Embezzle Kim Family Funds?

The lawsuit’s defendants said Pak and Ko had defected with foreign currency belonging to the Kims, an assertion helped by allegations that Pak once handled funds for the family as part of the “Third Floor” smuggling network. The lawsuit denies that the couple absconded with stolen money, and it specifically disputes the defendants’ contention that Ko and Pak embezzled Kim family money to subsidize plastic surgery for themselves.

As far back as the early 2000s, ROK intelligence operatives stated that Ko and Pak underwent cosmetic surgery after they left for the United States to help conceal their identities. However, this 38 North analysis finds that any money taken by Ko and Pak was their own, not part of any business revenue. As a Kim family in-law living abroad and a caretaker for the leader’s children, Ko received a generous allowance that she and Pak could spend at their discretion. In fact, Kim family members typically keep cash on hand while they are abroad in case they need to quickly return home. These allowances are so large that even if Ko and Pak had spent a significant portion prior to defecting, they would not have needed to embezzle other monies.

Figure 2. Kim Jong Nam’s counterfeit Dominican Republic passport.

Image: Michael Madden/North Korea Leadership Watch.
Image: Michael Madden/North Korea Leadership Watch.

Did Pak Cause Trouble for Kim Jong Nam?

According to the lawsuit, the defendants claimed that Ko and Pak played into events that helped tarnish the reputation of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il’s eldest son.

In May 2001, Tokyo airport authorities detained Kim Jong Nam with his wife, his son and an au pair. Kim Jong Nam had traveled from the DPRK to Beijing and then onto Japan to visit Tokyo Disney Resort, but he was found using a Dominican Republic passport issued in the name of Xiong Pang. Japan returned Kim Jong Nam and his family to the DPRK via Beijing, and conventional wisdom holds that the episode eliminated any chance he may have had of succeeding his father as North Korea’s leader. Analysts have never conclusively established this supposed outcome, which has been repeated despite a lack of evidence—and despite Kim Jong Nam’s own doubts—that he would otherwise have been a viable successor to the Dear Leader. The incident’s only clear result was a media embarrassment for Pyongyang and a public look at how some DPRK elites traveled in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The defendants supposedly said Ko and Pak were complicit in ruining Kim Jong Nam’s reputation and may even have directly caused his detention in Tokyo. This attack on the couple is rather preposterous, particularly because it relies on speculation about Kim Jong Nam’s passport kerfuffle, the relationship he had with his father, and his particular place in North Korea’s political culture. To emphasize this key contention of the lawsuit, the couple’s attorney rhetorically asked how people who defected in the 1990s would maintain influence or detailed knowledge on Pyongyang politics.[11]

Still, attempts to connect Ko and Pak with Kim Jong Nam’s apprehension in Japan are not entirely without substance. One earlier account of their defection asserts that Pak carried several counterfeit passports, including a fake Dominican Republic travel permit, to apply for entry visas. If Pak’s handlers had found him carrying such a document, he may have explained the Kim family’s use of falsified Dominican Republic passports, inadvertently tipping off Japanese authorities three years later.

Who was Ko’s Father and What Did He Do in Japan?

The lawsuit’s biggest bone of contention may concern the biography of Ko Yong Suk’s father—that is, of Kim Jong Un’s maternal grandfather. The only established facts are that his family originated on Jeju Island, relocated during the 1940s to Osaka, Japan, and joined the repatriation movement of ethnic Koreans to North Korea during the 1960s.

Beyond those details, the identity and allegiances of the Ko family’s late patriarch continue to be debated by scholars and Pyongyang watchers. One account holds that the man was Ko Tae Mun, a Korean-Japanese judoka and one-time professional wrestler who introduced judo as a sport to North Korea. While this theory has never been disproven, an alternative emerged in 2009.[12] With news that Kim Jong Un had been selected as hereditary successor, some sources claimed that his maternal grandfather was Ko Kyong Taek, a munitions worker who may have willingly supported Japan’s imperial government.[13] The lawsuit’s defendants essentially accused her father of being a willing collaborator, as a number of other defectors and analysts believe. Kim Jong Un’s detractors have invoked this possibility in an effort to undermine his credibility and legitimacy as the North’s leader, particularly because his revolutionary lineage is based on the “anti-Japanese guerrilla” fighter reputation of his other grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. In the process of attempting to tarnish Kim Jong Un’s reputation (particularly in hope that this morsel of information would reach the DPRK), the defectors inadvertently besmirched Ko Yong Suk’s reputation.

Conclusion

The lawsuit and Pak Kun’s interview highlight the disparities in socioeconomic class, residency status and individual perspective among the small diaspora of people who have migrated out of the DPRK. Some have defected to South Korea and leveraged their former political status and remaining contacts in the DPRK to contribute to academic and media conversations about North Korean politics. Others have chosen to live quietly, and in cases like that of Ko Yong Suk, under close protection. There is a very good chance that Ko and her husband want to see this lawsuit settled quietly because any testimony that emerges could lead to the circulation of unflattering information about Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un or members of their family, potentially endangering the plaintiffs’ lives.

It is nearly impossible to determine whether Ko and Pak will sit through a trial and attain a court ruling, but their lawsuit is intended to discourage defectors from extrapolating bits of information or resorting to disinformation. The case underscores how basic information about the DPRK’s political culture and its ruling families can be interpreted and characterized, and how basic facts can be manipulated to fit a certain perspective about the country and its elites. More fundamentally, the lawsuit shows that Pyongyang watchers may still need to question information that is years or even decades old.

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[1] Ahn, JH. “Kim Jong Un’s aunt, her husband sue defectors for defamation.” NK News, December 2, 2015. http://www.nknews.org/2015/12/kim-jong-uns-aunt-her-husband-sue-defectors-for-defamation/.

[2] “Kim Jong-un’s Aunt to Sue for Defamation,” Chosun Ilbo, December 2, 2015. http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2015/12/02/2015120201117.html.

[3] “N.K. leader’s uncle says he defected to U.S. for fear of power struggle,” Yonhap News Agency, December 9, 2015. http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2015/12/09/44/0401000000AEN20151209008800315F.html.

[4] Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Yong Hui, lived from 1951 to 2004.

[5] In addition to Ko Yong Suk’s famous nephews and niece, her younger brother Ko Su Il is something of a power player in DPRK politics. He has owned at least one foreign trading corporation and holds a military rank, and his name has appeared in North Korean state media.

[6] One of Pak’s counterfeit passports carried contained an alias commonly associated with operatives working in the “Third Floor” apparatus, but analysts continue to debate whether Pak was personally involved. The network helped to acquire goods for the Kim family; manage financial accounts; run trading corporations and other institutions; collect and analyze intelligence; and carry out other activities on behalf of the late leader Kim Jong Il. The organization received its moniker from its original offices, located on the third floor of the WPK Central Committee Office Building #1 in central Pyongyang (i.e., Office #39).

[7] Ko was not the only high-profile defector during the late 1990s. Her defection occurred about a year after the defections of Song Hye Rang (the maternal aunt of Kim Jong Il’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam), Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee member Hwang Jang Yop and Hwang’s aide, Kim Tok Hong. These defections all occurred as Kim Jong Il formally took the reins of power in North Korea—first with his elevation to the positions of WPK General Secretary in October 1997 and then through his appointment as Chairman of the National Defense Commission in September 1998—and purged dozens of party and government officials. As the defections took place, the DPRK was also overcoming the Arduous March (in which at least one million North Korean citizens starved to death) and pursuing high-level diplomatic negotiations with the United States over its long-range missile programs.

[8] Ri Il Nam was shot in Seongnam on February 15, 1997, and he died 10 days later. Ri was Kim Jong Il’s nephew-in-law, who had defected to the ROK when he was studying in Switzerland in 1982. He was shot around Kim Jong Il’s birthday (February 16), and some sources close to the Kim family and DPRK elites currently living abroad dispute that Kim Jong Il ordered his murder. He was also the son of Song Hye Rim, who had defected in 1996, and he had authored a memoir and given media interviews about his time living in Kim Jong Il’s houses and growing up as a DPRK elite. Ri’s shooters were never found. See “Defector Shot in Seoul; Police Assume DPRK Retaliation,” KBS Radio 1, February 15, 1997.

[9] According to one theory floated in South Korean media during the early 2000s, Pak was caught prior to their defection using a counterfeit passport when he applied for four entry visas to the United States. This theory posited that Pak applied for an entry visa, inter alia, on behalf of Kim Jong Il to seek asylum in America. Interestingly, neither Ko nor her husband disputed this theory when it first surfaced in ROK media over ten years ago. See “DPRK Leader Kim Jong Il, 2 Other North Korean Reportedly Obtain US Visas in 1997.” Chosun Ilbo, January 18, 2005 (in Korean).

[10] Pak corroborated an account that he had arranged for Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Yong Hui, to enter the United States for medical treatment in the 1990s. Ironically, and unbeknownst to Ko Yong Suk, several DPRK doctors traveled to the US for medical education on cancer treatments during the late 1990s. It is not clear whether those doctors were treating Ko Yong Hui’s type of cancer.

[11] Communications into Pyongyang are a different question altogether.

[12] “김정일의 여자관계, 수많은 희생 불러.” Daily NK, July 4, 2005. http://www.dailynk.com/korean/read.php?cataId=nk02300&num=8010. Material cited in “Biographical Data on Kim Jong Il’s Wives, Children,” Daily NK, December 10, 2007.

[13] Ko Kyong Taek migrated from Cheju to Osaka around 1929 and later worked in a munitions factory in Japan. The job Ko Kyong Taek held at the munitions factory had been in dispute before Ko Yong Suk filed her lawsuit. One account claims that Ko Kyong Taek was like millions of other people pressed into industrial work by the Japanese, while another account finds him working as a factory manager and therefore a willing collaborator. This latter position is what Ko Yong Suk and Pak Kun claim as slander. The evidence of Ko Kyong Taek’s job at the munitions factory is ambiguous. See “Grave of N. Korean Leader’s Grandfather Found on Jeju,” Chosun Ilbo, January 28, 2014. http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2014/01/28/2014012801018.html.

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