Firsthand exposés about the personal lives of North Korea’s leaders can put the lives of their authors at risk, even if they are far away.The latest tell-all, published in Austria by two journalists to whom former Army Col. Kim Jong-ryul told his story, is a case in point.
“Maybe I’ll be shot, killed in the next few days,” Kim Jong-ryul, who escaped North Korea in 1994 and now lives at a secret address, told reporters in Vienna after the book came out. At least, "now I can die with a clear conscience," he said. But “without [publishing] this book, I didn’t want to die.”
The book adds to a growing body of evidence of the selfishness of the North's Kim Il-sung, who ignored the suffering of his people while focusing on his own comfort and safety. An engineer, Kim Jong-ryul said he was asked to design a special filtration system for the shelter in which Kim Il-sung and his family could hide in order to survive a nuclear attack.
The Great Leader, as Kim Il-sung was routinely called, placed special agents in Europe just to buy the fancy items he wanted. An agent in Romania, for instance, bought a small Cessna plane for him, as well as hunting rifles. Kim himself sometimes spent months at a time looking for all the goods, big and small, on the shopping list.
To go public with such juicy tidbits is enough to invite the death penalty – even for those who manage to flee the country. Activists agree such fear is not the stuff of paranoia. “It’s very dangerous to write about North Korea,” says Peter Chung, who runs an organization in Seoul called Justice for North Korea, which is dedicated to helping defectors.
“In the Dictator’s Service,” written in German by Austrian journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi, reveals the dietary cravings and demands, the parties and the lovely surroundings, in which Kim Il-sung existed for much of the 49 years that he ruled North Korea. He died in 1994 after ensuring that his son, Kim Jong-il, would succeed him.
A crime to have known anything
It may be even more dangerous to write about the man who's known in the North as the Dear Leader.
The nephew of Song Hye-rim, a woman who became either Kim Jong-il’s second wife or longtime consort, and bore his oldest son, was assassinated in Seoul in 1997 after writing memoirs about the dictator. Lee Han-young had been living in Seoul since defecting in 1982 until a pair of gunmen killed him outside the apartment of a friend.
“Kim Jong-il’s private life is not normal,” says Mr. Chung. “It is a crime to speak out about it.”
It is even a crime to have known anything about it, according to a book published here by Kim Young-seung, a schoolgirl friend of Ms. Song.
Ms. Kim, held for nine years in one of North Korea’s infamous prison camps for the worst political offenders, says she never was told the charge against her but came to know during months of torture that her offense was that she had been "a friend of the second wife of Kim Jong-il, and I knew about his private life.”
Her closest relatives were imprisoned as well. During her imprisonment, her parents starved to death, one of her sons drowned, another was shot trying to escape, and her husband "disappeared.”
"Even the beasts would be ashamed to be there," Kim says.
Her story provides remarkable fresh clues into the private life of Kim Jong-il, who left Song for his third consort, Ko Young-hee, a dancer and mother of sons No. 2 and 3. The latter is the heir-apparent Kim Jong-un, who is in his 20s.
After being freed from prison around 1989, Kim escaped to China in 2001, a year before Song died in exile in Moscow, and then to South Korea via Vietnam. Ms. Ko, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, died two years later.
Kim Young-seung knows she may be at risk but does not feel afraid. “This is my story,” she says, smiling slightly and pulling a copy of her book from her handbag.
Villas and luxury cars amid poverty
Kim Jong-ryul’s story provides still more glimmerings. Kim Il-sung “only ate foreign food" and had his chefs study in Vienna, he said. He had a passion for high-priced foreign cars, ranging from Mercedes-Benz and Citroens to Cadillacs and Lincolns, made in the lairs of his worst enemy, the United States.
The leader’s shopping lists for Europe included luxury goods ranging from carpets to gold-plated guns.
The former colonel’s account, says Peters, the activist, “highlights the perverse contrast between the lives of the Kim family dynasty and the tens of millions of beleaguered North Korean peasantry.”
Kim Il-sung died just as North Korea was entering a famine in which 2 million people are estimated to have died.