Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Nambuk Story on North Korean Succession

It's official -- the 27-year-old (seriously!) Kim Jong-Un, son of Kim Jong-Il, is named as the successor. There is plenty of coverage about Kim Jong-Un, but not nearly enough about other family members of Kim Jong-Il who are also rising to prominence. And as always, Mr. Joo Seong-Ha of Nambuk Story has got that covered.

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Kim Jong-Un was officially introduced as the successor as he was appointed to be a general at North Korean Labor Party Representatives Meeting. Also, his aunt Kim Gyeong-Hee was appointed as a general of North Korean military, establishing the "Kim Jong-Il Family Management System." It appears that Kim Jong-Il's governing style, thus far appointing his lackeys formally at major posts for him to micromanage, will also change toward the family at major posts operating those areas. At the core of establishing family management system are Kim Gyeong-Hee and her husband Jang Seong-Taek.

In particular, the most prominent part of the appointments is the fact that Kim Gyeong-Hee was elevated to a general, soaring into the core of the power. In addition, Jang Seong-Taek -- Kim Jong-Un's uncle by marriage -- is already the chairman of administration of the Labor Party, having a firm grip on North Korea's security apparatus. Last April, He was also appointed as the vice chairman of the National Defense Committee, the highest power organization of North Korea. Much interest is commanded on what role the husband-and-wife patrons Kim Gyeong-Hee and Jang Seong-Taek will pay in order to assist Kim Jong-Un's succession plan.

Who is Kim Gyeong-Hee?

Kim Gyeong-Hee, who received the title of "general" on the 28th, is well known for being Kim Jong-Il's only sister, aunt of Kim Jong-Un and wife of Jang Seong-Taek. But the past of Kim Gyeong-Hee as a person is not very well known.

Kim Gyeong-Hee was born as the third child of Kim Il-Sung on May 30, 1946. At birth Kim Gyeong-Hee had two older brothers, Yura (childhood name of Kim Jong-Il) and Shura. But Shura drowned in a lake several months after Kim Gyeong-Hee was born. There are stories that as Shura was splashing in a knee-deep lake, the terrified Kim Jong-Il who was playing with him could only hide and watch. Afterward, when Kim Il-Sung wanted to scold Kim Jong-Il, he frequently said, "That's why you could only watch as your brother drowned." It is said that it was Kim Jong-Il's Achilles' heel.

In 1949, when Kim Gyeong-Hee was three years old, her mother Kim Gyeong-Sook also died while giving birth, as she could not stop bleeding. Afterward, Kim Il-Sung lived with the daughter of Hong Myeong-Hee, author of the novel Im Ggeok-Jeong. After liberation, Kim Il-Sung married Kim Seong-Ae, who was a secretary working with Kim Il-Sung. As Kim Seong-Ae became her stepmother, Kim Gyeong-Hee spent her childhood unloved, which had a large influence on her emotional development.

Kim Gyeong-Hee's looks and personality very closely resemble those of her mother Kim Jeong-Sook. Kim Jeong-Sook was a tough woman who won Kim Il-Sung's love with sheer devotion of, for example, drying Kim Il-Sung's underwear with her body heat during the negative 30 degree cold during their years as communist guerrillas. There is a story that when young Kim Il-Sung cheated on her, Kim Jeong-Sook had Kim Jong-Il stand against the wall with an apple on his head. Then she told Kim Il-Sung, "Don't sleep around if you want to save your child," and shot the apple with a pistol. Even Kim Il-Sung feared Kim Jeong-Sook.

Kim Gyeong-Hee's personality is well demonstrated through her dating Jang Seong-Taek. Originally, Kim Il-Sung was planning to get a son-in-law from the military, so that Kim Jong-Il would assist him within the Party and the son-in-law would assist him within the military. But Kim Gyeong-Hee was deeply into Jang Seong-Taek, who was her classmate. Kim Gyeong-Hee would tease Jang Seong-Taek, who sat in front of her, by tickling his ear with a blade of grass. They eventually fell in love.

To stop this, Kim Yeong-Ju, brother of Kim Il-Sung, transfer Jang Seong-Taek to Wonsan University of Economics. But it is said that Kim Gyeong-Hee would drive her father's car herself down to Wonsan, doing laundry for Jang Seong-Taek at his dormitory. The faculty at Wonsan University would be in an emergency because they thought the Great Leader was making an unannounced visit, and would be surprised when a young woman gets out of the Great Leader's car to walk to the dormitory. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il had to capitulate to her stubbornness.

But the marriage with Jang Seong-Taek was not very smooth. A persuasive rumor says they do not have any children. There are stories that there was one daughter named Jang Geum-Song who committed suicide, but there is also a rumor that she was adopted.

Kim Gyeong-Hee, dissatisfied with her married life, hit the bottles since the 1980s. According to Fujimoto Kenji, a Japanese chef for Kim Jong-Il, recalled in his memoir that Kim Gyeong-Hee would drink whiskey like wine, and she was unstoppable when she became a belligerent drunk. Fujimoto also wrote that Kim Gyeong-Hee was catty toward Jang Seong-Taek, and treated Jang like a subordinate or a house servant, yelling in front of many people, "Drink more, Jang Seong-Taek." According to Fujimoto, Jang could say nothing.

Since her brother was nominated as the successor, Kim Gyeong-Hee was the subcommittee chairwoman and then the vice chairwoman of the Labor Party's Committeeon International Affairs. She was appointed to be the chairwoman of the Labor Party's Committee on Light Industries in 1987, and was in that post since then. Chairwoman of Light Industries Committee was a seat that was somewhat removed from the power center.

But regardless of the position, Kim Gyeong-Hee played a very important role, albeit unknown to the outside world, for her brother. As her brother Kim Jong-Il changed his women in the order of Seong Hye-Rim, Kim Yeong-Sook, Go Yeong-Hee and Kim Ok, Kim Gyeong-Hee handled the dirty work. She was like the queen in feudal Korea. It is said that Kim Gyeong-Hee was the one who blocked the new of Kim Jong-Nam's birth between Kim Jong-Il and Seong Hye-Rim from reach the ears of the father Kim Il-Sung. She was also was the one who sent Seong Hye-Rim to Moscow after Kim Jong-Il feel for Go Yeong-Hee.

It is said that Kim Jong-Il's women were terrified of their sister-in-law Kim Gyeong-Hee. Kim Jong-Il's children also grew up in Kim Gyeong-Hee's interest. Beyond this, Kim Gyeong-Hee handled the marriage of her husband Jang Seong-Taek's brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces.

Kim Gyeong-Hee, who has directly managed the growth of the royal family, accepted a new role in 2010. Instead of being a quiet supporter, she emerged on the forefront as an active patron so that her nephew can succeed the regime without difficulty. In particular, Kim Gyeong-Hee's rapid emergence appears to imply that as far as the succession issue is concerned, Jang Seong-Taek is not fully trusted either.

Who is Jang Seong-Taek?

Jang Seong-Taek, vice chairman of the Labor Party's National Defense Committee and Kim Jong-Il's brother-in-law, is noted to be the person with the greatest role in Kim Jong-Un's succession while Kim Jong-Il is in ill health.

Jang's father is said to be a colonel in the military. Jang was born in 1946 in Cheonnae, Gangwon-do to an unremarkable home. As Jang was admitted to Kim Il-Sung University and became classmates with Kim Gyeong-Hee, his destiny would change completely. Kim Gyeong-Hee was enthralled by Jang, who was not only a good organist but also a good-looking smooth-talker, and married him despite her family's opposition.
Jang, who suddenly became a part of the royal family from his low beginning, did his best to win the heart of Kim Jong-Il since then. In the mid-1970s when Jang was a chair of Subcommittee on International Affairs in the Committee on Organized Instructions of the Labor Party, Jang built a luxurious villa for Kim Jong-Il for the purpose of relaxation. It is also known that around this time, North Korean diplomats began to sell narcotics to establish the "loyalty fund."

In 1978, Jang -- who liked to drink and party -- began to host feasts like the ones held by Kim Jong-Il, with his cronies and women. This was caught in Security Bureau's surveillance, and was reported Kim Jong-Il. Kim Jong-Il was enraged. It was infuriating that his brother-in-law, living with his sister, would party with other women, but even more infuriating was Jang dared to imitate him. Jang had to be "revoluntionized" by working as a pit boss at Gangseon Steel Mill for two years.

In 1989, Jang was appointed to be the chairman of the Labor Party's Committee on Youth Organization, and in 1995 he was appointed to be the chairman of the First Committee on Party Organization. But because he was Kim Jong-Il's brother-in-law, Jang (referred to as "Chairman Jang") lived as the Number Two in power since 1980 regardless of his position.

Jang Seong-Taek faced another adversity in 2004. Kim Jong-Il, long suspicious of the fact that Jang planted his people in major positions of the regime, relegated Jang in the name of "causing division" and "wasteful spending." Jang's men in key positions were all dragged to gulags for political prisoners or "revolutionized" in rural areas. In 2006, Jang returned to power as the chairman as the Committee on Labor Organizations and Capital Construction. But as he reached the bottom twice because of Kim Jong-Il's orders, Jang appears to be perfectly obedient to Kim Jong-Il's orders.

Outside of North Korea, people debate either Jang is a reformist or a conservative. But Jang is no more than someone who will do anything to preserve his position and win Kim Jong-Il's favor, and his stance can always change. This is the lesson he has learned through 40 years as a royal in-law. Thus, it seems likely that also in the process of Kim Jong-Un's succession, Jang will lower himself and be absolutely loyal so as not to be out of Kim Jong-Il's good side.

How do North Koreans view many civilians being promoted to generals?

It is unprecedented for North Korea to award the title of "General of the People's Army" to civilians such as Kim Jong-Un, the aunt Kim Gyeong-Hee, former acting secretary of the Hwanghaebuk-do Labor Party Choi Ryong-Hae and chairman of the Party's Committee on Organized Instructions Kim Gyeong-Ok. There are cases in which a high-ranking military general would quit the military, assume a major post of the Party or the government, then return to the military. But there is no case in which a pure civilian was appointed to be a high-ranking officer of the North Korean military. The only exception so far was when Kim Jong-Il received the title of Supreme Commander, as he was appointed to the chief leader of the North Korean military in 1992.

It was expected that Kim Jong-Un would be appointed as a general. After Kim Jong-Un was selected to be the successor, North Korean regime described him as "Comrade General Kim" in the propaganda. But no one expected Kim Gyeong-Hee, Choi Ryong-Hae and Kim Gyeong-Ok to become generals.

Particuarly surprising is Kim Gyeong-Hee's appointment. There are only five female generals in the history of North Korea, and all of them were brigadier generals. In the early 1990s, North Korea's Mansudae Creative Company [TK: a propaganda art factory] did make an oil painting depicting Kim Gyeong-Hee, dressed in a general's uniform and smiling at the top of Mt. Baekdu along with Kim Il-Sung in his Great Supreme Commander uniform and Kim Jong-Il in his Supreme Commander uniform. But no North Korean would have expected that the depiction would come true.

It appears that ordinary North Koreans would react cynically to this round of appointments. Even in 1992 when North Korean system was relatively functional, people gossiped about Kim Jong-Il's appointment as the Supreme Commander that "It's ridiculous to have someone whose experience is no more than playing soldiers as a child as the Supreme Commander." At this time when the people's loyalty completely evaporated, it is easy to guess the people's reaction. In particular, in North Korea where the idea of male superiority is strong and nearly all men have military experience, it would be difficult to accept that a woman without any military experience is suddenly appointed as a general only because she is the sister of Kim Jong-Il.

North Korean generals are organized from the top as Great Supreme Commander, Supreme Commander, Vice Supreme Commander, Four-star General, Three-star General, Two-star General and One-star General. [TK: The appointees are Four-star Generals.] Among them, only Kim Il-Sung is the Great Supreme Commander. There were four Supreme Commanders:  Kim Jong-Il, Oh Jin-Woo, Choi Gwang, Lee Eul-Seol. Oh Jin-Woo and Choi Gwang are dead. There have been 13 Vice Supreme Commanders so far, and dozens of Generals. Even a Vice Supreme Commander would naturally bow to lower-ranked Kim Gyeong-Hee and Kim Jong-Un. Some say the title of general for Kim Gyeong-Hee is an honorary one, but there is no such thing as an honorary general in North Korea.

Personally when I heard the news that Kim Gyeong-Hee was appointed as a general, I thought, "North Korea finally dropped all pretense." I felt that the devastating finale was near.

인간적으로 본 김경희와 장성택 부부의 삶 [Nambuk Story]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this! i've never read so much about kim gyeong-hee. i wonder how much support she has external from kim jong-il

    ReplyDelete

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