Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Kyo’ng-hu’i), sister of the late DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong Il (Kim Cho’ng-il) and aunt of current supreme leader Kim Jong Un (Kim Cho’ng-u’n) did not attend the 6th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly [SPA] in Pyongyang on 25 September (Tuesday). Kim Kyong Hui is also the Korean Workers’ Party Secretary of Organization, a member of the Political Bureau and wife of National Defense Commission [NDC] Vice Chairman Jang Song Taek (Chang So’ng-t’aek). In DPRK state media coverage of the SPA session’s proceedings, Kim Kyong Hui was neither seated on the rostrum nor did she appear in video footage of DPRK elites sitting in the gallery. According to KCNA English news reporting, her last reported public appearance was attending a visit by Kim Jong Un to the Taedonggang Tile Factory, which was reported on 1 September. JoongAng Ilbo also noted her absence at Tuesday’s SPA session with its sources claiming that she was in Singapore receiving medical treatment, but another source quoted in the story saying that “There is nothing confirmed about her visit to Singapore.” In a similar report in Chosun Ilbo an unnamed source also denied reports of her having health problems because DPRK elites “visit Singapore for fun.” Chosun Ilbo‘s report also noted that she may be experiencing health difficulties typical to a 65-year old woman who’s lived a hard life.
Kim Kyong Hui’s absence at Tuesday’s parliamentary session is not entirely unexpected. The only known session of the 12th SPA that she has attended was the 5th session held on 14 April 2012, the first SPA session to occur since Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011. At that meeting she was seated prominently in the first row of the rostrum next to party elder Kim Kuk Tae. At the time of that SPA session the DPRK’s political culture (including major policy and personnel) were shaped by KJI’s final “behests” (literally, the will of the suryong) with Kim Kyong Hui serving as her brother’s chief executor. She has been an SPA deputy (delegate; member) since the 9th SPA in 1990. Until the 5th session was held in April, she posed for commemorative photos of SPA members, but her attendance (not unlike her deceased brother’s late in his life) at SPA sessions was either irregular or not prominently featured in state media reporting.
During late August and early September, unconfirmed rumors appeared in east Asian media that Kim Kyong Hui’s was severely compromised from alcoholism. A 24 August Sankei Shimbun report claimed that Kim Kyong Hui’s health was “worsening” and a report in Daily NK claimed that she received treatment for alcoholism. There have been media rumors for over ten years**, that she has Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and other possible alcohol-related illnesses. In a film about a leadership banquet held to commemorate the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s military-first leadership, Kim Kyong Hui is not shown drinking during a round of toasts. Accounts about her health may have derived from Kenji Fujimoto’s first visit to the DPRK in August when she did not attend a welcome banquet for him hosted by Kim Jong Un and attended by several core elites including her husband, Jang Song Taek. Of course, unlike her husband or nephew, Kim Kyong Hui may not be as magnanimous about Fujimoto’s cook-and-tell memoirs after he returned to Japan from the DPRK in 2001.
Rumors and questions about the state of Kim Kyong Hui’s health were previously used as a cover story whilst DPRK elites engaged the services of foreign doctors to treat Kim Jong Il. In March 2009, Dong-a Ilbo reported that KJI’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam (Kim Cho’ng-nam) visited Paris to consult with French neurosurgeon Dr. Francis-Xavier Roux. Dong-a Ilbo reported at the time that “a Korean-Japanese businessman who can freely enter Pyongyang via Beijing said yesterday that her long addiction to alcohol caused severe brain damage.” Dong-a Ilbo‘s source told the newspaper that “when Roux visited north Korea, rumors about Kim Jong Il’s health spread [but] the North neither confirmed nor denied this apparently on purpose to divert world attention from his sister’s critical condition.” At the time he visited the DPRK Dr. Roux did not disclose the reason for his visit. After KJI died, Dr. Roux gave several interview to French media where he talked about treating KJI and Kim Jong Un’s somber presence at his father’s bedside.
The primary reason for Kim Kyong Hui’s prominence in DPRK political culture and her public role during 2009 to 2011 was linked to the transition from KJI to KJU. As Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession quietly unfolded in 2009, his aunt’s initial presence presented the Kim Family and the core elite’s united front to support his eventual accession. She also served, to appropriate US terminology, as her brother’s power-of-attorney and health care proxy. There was no one else in the DPRK who could have ordered KJI’s personal physicians to cease any further medical interventions as he lay dying on a chilly December morning. After Kim Jong Un was publicly acclaimed supreme leader, her public appearances gradually receded. In the process of KJU’s migration to the power center, his aunt (in coordination with other members of the core leadership) had to disappear any threats to his authority (Message: “Don’t f— with my nephew!”).
If Kim Kyong Hui is, in fact, critically ill, it may explain why the number of Kim Jong Un’s reported public appearances has subsided. During July 2012 DPRK state media reported that KJU made 12 public appearances and in August 2012 he made 15 appearances. As of 28 September (Friday), KJU had only made 9 appearances which might suggest to some Pyongyang watchers that Kim Kyong Hui is ill and that the family is staying close to her bedside. One might take Kim Kyong Hui’s absence in conjunction with the diminishing public profile of Ri Sol Ju. Her last reported public appearance with her husband was attending KJU’s visit to the Pyongyang Folk Park which was reported by DPRK state media on 7 September, less than a week after Kim Kyong Hui’s last known public activity.
And yet, Kim Kyong Hui may have joined the ranks of DPRK elites who have migrated back to the shadows. During May she conducted a series of unreported site visits and meetings with foreigners in North Hamgyo’ng Province. This low-key activity hews more closely to the m.o. of her four decade career than holding a notebook on a factory tour and looking enthusiastic. Even when she was accompanying Kim Jong Il, she spent most of her time with KJI’s personal aides and family members, eluding the omnipresent videographers and photographers.
**One is reminded of what Michael Coreleone said in Godfather II, “Hyman Roth has been dying of the same heart attack for the last 20 years.”