Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
Chosun Ilbo, citing an anonymous source, reported in January that Kim Jong Il’s death on 17 December 2011 was precipitated by his anger after major leaks were discovered in a dam at the Hu’ich’o’n Power Station’s construction. According to the unnamed source, “It wasn’t just a crack. The safety of the entire dam was in question.” The leaks in the dam may have been due to rushed construction work, to complete the power station by April 2012, in time for celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late DPRK President and founder, Kim Il Sung (KJI’s father). DPRK state media editorials and essays published in 2010 and 2011 termed “Hu’ich’o’n Speed” the new “Ch’o’llima Speed” and one piece described the power station as the “forefront of the drive for building a thriving nation.” The power station was completed and opened during a ceremony held on 5 April 2012 and, as of October 2012, was supplying electricity to Pyongyang.
According to Chosun Ilbo‘s unnamed source, “After being briefed about the leak, Kim Jong-il lambasted officials and ordered them to repair it. He rushed to make an on-site inspection of the facility unable to contain his anger and died suddenly.” The South Korean (ROK) daily also reported that “Stress about the trouble at Huichon was apparently the last straw after Kim learned that steel and textile manufacturing plants, also touted as key projects, had serious defects as well.” Kim Jong Il’s last reported public appearance was his visit to the Kwangbok Department Store. At the time of KJI’s demise, the DPRK was also conducting two major interactions with the US in Beijing, one with US Ambassador Glyn Davies and one with US Special Representative Robert King. Also, in Beijing on an official visit at the time, was DPRK Minister of Electronic Industry Han Kwang Bok, who was later removed from office. It is possible that reports to KJI about these interactions, in addition to problems with the Hu’ich’o’n Power Station, sent KJI’s delicate cardiovascular condition over the edge. Alastair Gale wrote a fascinating essay about this report for Korea Realtime. The policy and political circumstances under which Kim Jong Il passed away may have affected a number of personnel and political decisions and activities that Pyongyang watchers beheld during 2012.
Chosun Ilbo undercut its own story, writing that “Kim Jong-il was famous for his nocturnal lifestyle and normally got up around noon.” This information is a bit dated. For many years, KJI was a night owl. In the early years of his succession drive he stayed up awaiting ‘phone calls from his father (who also worked in the wee hours). Later on, as he assumed more operational power and policy control, Kim Jong Il would start completing his office work late at night. If he was hosting a close aide party or “secret” banquet he’d slip away early and head for his office where he’d read reports, documents and policy proposals until the early hours of morning. He would retire to his quarters for a few hours’ rest and then appear back at whatever office out of which he was operating during the late morning or early afternoon. KJI’s kept this nocturnal schedule until around 2007. In 2007 he began to experience headaches and trouble with his eyesight while working. This foreshadowed the subsequent health problems that culminated in a transient ischemic attack [TIA] followed by a major stroke during July and August 2008.
Even before his strokes in 2008, KJI had curtailed his late night office work. At dinner party in the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang in January 2008, KJI smiled and said, “I am physically so much weaker than when I was younger. Lately, I’ve been feeling even weaker. In my office I sometimes feel dizzy and I get light-headed. I can’t drink and I am on a diet. What is even worse is that I can’t stay up late any more. I am terribly bored every day.” Between rumors about KJI’s problems in 2007-2008, and his own admissions to family members and foreign visitors, Chinese officials became somewhat concerned and began to compile observations and information about the late leader’s health. The Chinese got a better view on KJI’s health on 18 June 2008 when Kim Jong Il met with Xi Jinping for over an hour. Although Chinese observers said KJI kept his eyes closed and nodded as the Chinese spoke, he was “quick to respond” and “logical and coherent.” While the KJI-Xi meeting provided the PRC a first-hand assessment of KJI’s physical and mental faculties, Xi’s visit to Pyongyang was the first stop on a five-nation tour of Chinese allies and Xi’s first foreign excursion after his appointment as China’s Vice President in March 2008.
In any event, after 2007, Kim Jong Il ceased working in his office at night. From 2008 to 2011, according to several sources and accounts, Kim Jong Il generally woke up early in the morning. When not staying in his suite at Ponghwa Clinic, he received a daily medical check up either at his personal clinic in the central party complex or from medical personnel (working under the Guard Command and Personal Secretariat) at whatever residence at which he was staying. When not conducting guidance tours of economic sites, public facilities or military field inspections, KJI was usually in his office by 9 AM. In the last months of his life, Kim Jong Il kept a very busy public schedule. Stewing over a misleading report about infrastructure work one frigid Saturday morning, it is entirely likely KJI decided to board his private train and see for himself what was happening at Hu’ich’o’n Power Station.
And yet, perhaps Kim Jong Il did not expire on the mystery train. On 27 December 2012,
Japan’s Shukan Bushun obtained documents from a country with close ties to the DPRK leadership which claimed that Kim Jong Il died on 16 December 2011 (Friday) after taking a nap in the home of his beloved daughter and close aide Kim So’l-song (Kim Sul-song). Some details from Shukan‘s documents were churning through the Pyongyang rumor mill in December 2011 and January 2012, after KJI’s demise. A person who had some knowledge about KJI’s activities and the Kim family’s interactions told me that prior to his death KJI had worked in his office on 16 December 2011, and at that time there was tension between himself and his hereditary successor Kim Jong Un. A Korean Workers’ Party senior official who was a member of KJI’s entourage said that
Just after 7:00 a.m. on 15 December, Kim Jong Il secretly visited the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance and then the Hana Music Information Center. Around 9:00 a.m., he then went to give on-site guidance at a large department store (in the heart of the commercial area in the Kwangbok District) jointly financed by North Korea and China. Kim Jong Il walked all around the three-story department store, inspecting it. However, during his inspection, he would walk a little ways, a pained expression would cross his face, and he would stop; then he would walk a bit more and stop again. He repeated that numerous times. Also during the inspection, he pointed out the false facts given in the reports by the senior officials in charge. At those times he got fairly worked up.
After his three hour visit to the department store, KJI returned to his office in the central party complex where he attended to some office work. According to a media report from December 2011, citing an unnamed source, KJI had been in his office reviewing and signing documents during 15 to 16 December 2011. On 16 December, according Shukan‘s documents and the foreign officials it interviewed, KJI canceled a guidance tour and remained at one of the two residences in central Pyongyang which he was using at the time. On the afternoon of 16 December KJI, accompanied by a retinue of bodyguards, a personal assistant and a physician, visited the residence of his daughter Kim So’l-song. Kim So’l-song is the daughter of KJI’s official wife, Kim Yong Suk, and was a close aide to her father managing some of his itineraries and security arrangements. So’l-song is a Lt. Colonel in the KPA and was tied directly to the Guard Command.
KJI’s visit to So’l-song’s house was not unusual. According both to Shukan Bushun and other sources, when he did not have official dinner engagements, KJI was a regular visitor to his daughter’s house, spending time with his grandchildren, So’l-song’s husband, his sister Kim Kyong Hui and his fifth wife (or consort) Kim Ok. On 16 December KJI had dinner with So’l-song, her husband and children. During the meal KJI consumed an unusually large amount of alcohol and neglected to take the medication mitigating the liquor’s effects on his kidneys. After dinner, Kim Jong Il said that he would return to his own residence, after taking an hour’s rest at So’l-so’ng’s house. An hour after KJI retired to nap, his personal aide heard the chiming of a medical alert device which KJI wore on his wrist. According to a DPRK official “When So’l-song and her son, who had been talking in the living room, and an aide to Kim Jong Il went to the bedroom, they found that Kim Jong Il had fainted, with foam around his mouth. Later, Kim Jong Il’s main physician confirmed his death.” After KJI passed away the central party initiated an enquiry into the circumstances of KJI’s demise–the results of this enquiry may explain why some of KJI’s personal aides fell by the wayside during the funeral events in late December 2011 (one day they were attending to Kim Jong Un and other core elites, and the next day they were no where to be seen).
The intelligence report, the DPRK and foreign officials interviewed by Shukan Bushun claimed that during the last year and a half Kim Jong Il’s mental and physical health declined. A In June 2011 in a conversation with someone who knows members of the family, my friend said that “the father was not doing well. . . mentally” and said that KJI had become depressed (which would explain why he spent a lot of his public schedule watching concerts and other performances). This same source and friend also said that he did not expect KJI to live much longer. Shukan Bushun reported that KJI spent his free time watching television and surfing the Internet. According to Shukan “But he whiled away his free time with television or the Internet, he hardly did any exercise. He set aside 40 minutes for walking, but he would spend more time sitting on the benches along his walking course than actually walking.”
Shukan Bushun reports that the main source of KJI’s melancholy was feuding with his son and hereditary successor, Kim Jong Un, particularly over personnel appointments. According to Shukan Kim Jong Un was eager for a “generational change” in the 1st and 2nd tier central leadership of the party, army and government to which Kim Jong Il angrily remonstrated, “Despite the fact that after I am gone, it will still not be too late to use your people, why are you in such a rush to try to handle things your way?”
Despite the circumstances around KJI’s death, Kim So’l-song has become a close aide to Jong Un. She was promoted into the KWP Organization Guidance Department and her husband is believed to be a close advisor to KJU.
n.b. Materials in this positing derive from my short book The Last Days of the Ryo’ngdoja (currently undergoing its 2nd edit) and a feature in Japanese press from 2009