Nestled in a town outside of New York, the aunt of Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, runs a dry-cleaning business that she and her husband have operated since 1998.
Previously, her existence and residence in the United States was likely known to only the CIA, the South Korean government, and a small circle of North Korean elites. But recently, Ko Yong Suk, as she was called in North Korea, agreed to speak with Washington Post reporters, ostensibly to refute claims made by other North Korean defectors.
Ms. Ko and her husband Ri Gang told US officials and reporters that they lack details behind policy decisions made in the past by the North Korean regime, but that they could provide an intimate portrait of a young Kim Jong-un, whom Ko helped raise.
“My friends here tell me I’m so lucky, that I have everything,” Ko told Washington Post reporters. “My kids went to great schools and they’re successful, and I have my husband, who can fix anything. There’s nothing we can envy.”
“I think we have achieved the American Dream,” Mr. Ri added, laughing.
But before the American Dream, Ko and Ri lived among the most privileged lives in North Korea and later Switzerland.
Ko’s sister Ko Yong Hui, who became the third wife of Kim Jong Il in 1975, invited her to the capital to help in official duties. Ri was hand-selected to marry Ko by Kim Jong Il himself. Together they shared caviar, cognac, and rides in a Mercedes-Benz with the royal family.
In 1992, Ko moved to Bern, Switzerland to act as a caregiver and mother for the royal children attending school. Kim Jong Un arrived in 1996, where Ko formed a close relationship with the 12-year-old boy.
"We lived in a normal house and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother," Ko said. "I encouraged him to bring his friends home because we wanted them to live a normal life. I made snacks for the kids. They ate cake and played with Legos."
Ko has been able to clarify several small details about Kim Jong-un. His birthday, she says, was in 1984, not 1983 or 1982 as most experts predicted. She also said it was clear that Kim Jong Un had been selected to lead North Korea from early in his life. At his eighth birthday, generals and top officials publicly bowed to him.
“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said.
According to a 2013 BBC report, rumors supported the idea that Kim Jong Un had been groomed to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il, but could not be confirmed. Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il, is supposed to have had his chances at succession ruined in 2001 after being caught trying to sneak into Japan with a false passport to visit Disneyland.
Despite a privileged life, Ko says Kim Jong-un was relatively well-behaved, but he did have a temper.
“When his mother tried to tell him off for playing with these things too much and not studying enough, he wouldn’t talk back but he would protest in other ways, like going on a hunger strike,” Ko remembered.
During his time in Switzerland, Kim Jong Un was fascinated by games and machinery and often interested in engineering, including how ships floated. Later on, he would become obsessed with playing basketball, which his mother told him would make him taller.
Many characteristics Ko described of young Kim Jong-un continue to characterize the enigmatic leader today. His love of basketball, for example, has shown up in widely publicized visits from ex-NBA player Dennis Rodman. And his temper has likewise been noted, such as in 2015 when the leader lambasted workers at a terrapin farm.
His western education also made experts hopeful that after a few years of consolidating power, Kim Jong-un would be more willing to negotiate with the United States and other western powers, The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2011. So far, that has not materialized.
Ri told the Washington Post reporters that he hopes to one day reconcile with Kim Jong Un and assist in negotiations between the United States and North Korea.
"I understand America and I understand North Korea, so I think I can be a negotiator between the two,” Ri said.