Kim Kyong Hui, the godmother of North Korea’s dynasty

9 10 2010

BY KIYOHITO KOKITA ASAHI SHIMBUN WEEKLY AERA (2010/10/09) In the large group photograph taken Sept. 30 in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, international attention was focused on Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and heir apparent. But another individual in that photograph, sitting five places to the right of Jong Il, may warrant even more attention than Jong Un. The woman is Kim Kyong Hui, 64, Jong Il’s younger sister and the “godmother of the royal family.”

She has been described as cantankerous, obstinate and a drunk. She might also become the true power figure of the impoverished nuclear-power wannabe. The Sept. 28 meeting of representatives of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea served as the debut on the political stage for Jong Un, who was sitting in the front row two places to the left of his father in the photograph run by the party organ Rodong Sinmun. Kyong Hui also marked her debut on the political stage at the meeting. After being named general, she was appointed to the party Politburo.

In late August, Yuriko Koike, chairwoman of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council, predicted the emergence of Kyong Hui. “In that nation, the most important factor is blood relations,” Koike said recently. “I do not have a very specific image of Jong Un. I believe she is the only family member who has gained the trust of Kim Jong Il.”

Ha Tae-keung, who heads Open Radio for North Korea based in Seoul, said: “(Kim Jong Il) is probably very worried about the fate of his dynasty should anything happen to him under the present circumstances. He probably wanted to give his younger sister greater authority now, so that when the time comes, she can serve in the roles of ‘executor of the will’ and ‘manager of the dynasty.'”

There is likely no other candidate who could fulfill those roles better than Kyong Hui, who has maintained strong ties with Jong Il. When United Nations troops pushed back the North Korean military during the Korean War, Kyong Hui fled to China with her older brother. After returning to Pyongyang with Jong Il, she apparently was “treated very coldly” by her stepmother, who had married Kim Il Sung, the North Korean founder, according to sources. North Korean insiders say Kyong Hui has a violent temperament and never changes her mind once she has made a decision.

She met her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who came from an ordinary family outside of Pyongyang, when they were students at Kim Il Sung University. Kim Il Sung was opposed to their marriage because he wanted his daughter to marry an outstanding military officer. He pulled strings to have Jang transferred to a university in Wonsan. But Kyong Hui drove herself from Pyongyang for weekend trysts with Jang in Wonsan. Kim Il Sung finally gave in to his stubborn daughter and approved the marriage.

Kyong Hui is a regular member of the alcohol drinking parties hosted by Jong Il and attended by high-ranking party officials. According to sources, she cannot stop drinking once she starts. She has been known to drunkenly bellow: “Hey, Jang Song Thaek, drink up!” But she is said to be the only person who can give advice to Jong Il. And he apparently can do little to control his younger sister. Hwang Jang Yop, a former party secretary who defected to South Korea in 1997, wrote in a book that Kyong Hui once told him, “Although he is surrounded by many flatterers, my older brother is actually very lonely.”

After Jang married Kyong Hui in 1972, he proceeded along an elite promotion course as a close associate of Jong Il. However, he was demoted in around 2004 after being criticized for forming his own faction. Kyong Hui wept to her older brother, explaining the difficult position of her husband. Sources said Kyong Hui’s pleas may have been behind Jang’s resurrection in 2006. Although she was appointed director of the party’s light industry department in the 1980s, she rarely made public appearances. At the same time, she became well known for being a “shadow power broker.” Japanese companies seeking to move into North Korea sought out personal connections that would eventually lead to her.

From 2003, Kyong Hui completely disappeared from the public stage, but made a sudden re-emergence in June 2009, after Jong Il was apparently felled by a stroke. She began accompanying her older brother on visits to outlying regions of North Korea. Photos taken of the two siblings were played up big by the North Korean media. This year, she has been by far the most frequent traveler with Jong Il among any of his close associates. In second place is her husband, Jang. Jang heads the party’s Administration Department, which gives him control over public security and the “thought police.” In June, he was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest decision-making organ in North Korea.

Speculation before the Sept. 28 meeting was that Jang would be named to the party Politburo. However, the only appointments he received were as an alternate member of the Politburo and member of the Central Military Commission. There is a wide gap between a Politburo member and an alternate member. Alternate members can offer their opinions during meetings–but they cannot vote on important decisions. In an unusual move, North Korean authorities released the backgrounds of Politburo Presidium members, Politburo members as well as alternate members. The only two individuals whose backgrounds were not mentioned were Jong Il, a Politburo Presidium member, and Kyong Hui, a Politburo member.

Jang’s background was released along with other top party executives. Analysts said that difference was meant to show that Jang is not a major member of the dynasty, but only a man who has married into the family. The situation in North Korea could become very fluid if Jong Il dies in a few years. Sources said Kyong Hui herself has heart problems, is an alcoholic and has also suffered from depression.

Koike said, “There is the possibility that Kyong Hui herself would grab power.” The Kim dynasty is increasingly showing signs of direct control by the family even as it fails to adequately feed its own people. Park Too Jin, who heads the Korea International Institute in Tokyo, described the recent events in North Korea as “the final fruitless struggle to maintain the power structure.” The fate of that structure and the future of the Kim family are closely intertwined…

Leonid Petrov’s commentary: One important detail remained ommited in this biographical report. In 2006, Kim Kyong-hee and Jang Song-taek’s daughter, who had studied in Paris and apparently refused to return to North Korea, suicided or was murdered. This familty drama might have softened Kim Jong-il’s anger toward his sister and promted to pardon her husband the same year. 

Also, the growing involvement in domestic politics and her strong family credentials might backfire on Mrs. Jang (Kim Kyong-hee) soon after the death of Kim Jong-il, as it happened with Jiang Qing in China immediately after the death of Mao Zedong.   

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