Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
A selected passage from a translation of The Wisteria House, a memoir written by Ms. So’ng Hye-rang, maternal aunt and primary caretaker of Kim Jong Nam (Kim Cho’ng-nam), eldest son of late DPRK leader Kim Jong Il (Kim Cho’ng-il). In this passage Jong Nam is living in relative seclusion following his return to his home country after studying in Switzerland and Russia. Nam-ok is Ms. So’ng’s daughter and Jong Nam’s cousin. So’ng Hye-rang defected from the DPRK during the late 1990s and currently resides in a European country. So’ng’s son defected to the ROK during the 1980s and was later killed on a city street there.
The Beach in October
Chong-nam was a fully grown-up gentleman and Nam-ok was a mature lady who was just passing her marriageable age. However, they had nothing to do. They had no place to go. The only place they could go legally (without being reprimanded by Secretary Kim) was to a hospital. Even noodles from Ongnyugwan, we could only have delivered to us.
When “the children,” feeling confined, drove around the city, there was not much to see, and they could not get out of the car even if there was anything. All the cars’ license plate numbers at the house were 33333, which Secretary Kim assigned for security agents to easily find out the whereabouts of these cars. One day, there was a call for the section chief.
“Where are the children? Didn’t they go out anywhere?”
When he reported that everybody was in and nobody went out, the phone rang again in a few minutes. Swearing loud enough to rupture the eardrum of the section chief, he grilled him as to why he was lying when one of our cars evidently had been in an accident.
All the drivers were questioned and the flak was turned onto Nam-ok and Chong-nam. In fact, they often sneaked out to the city through the back road, without the knowledge of the section chief. With a deadly pale face, he came to the front door.
“We are in big trouble. He is talking with evidence,” said he trembling with fear. Thanks to God, they stayed quietly at home without undertaking “liberalism” that day. This ruckus was explained after 2300 that night. Section four of the Central Party (the section in charge of meals and banquets for Secretary Kim Chong-il) had the same license plate as ours, and, someone from that section had hit a person and run off.
It was very difficult for Chong-nam to achieve “liberalism,” as he was under the surveillance of his father through the section chief. He wanted to get away from his father’s sight. The children’s wish to go to Wonsan beach was barely approved.
It was more than once or twice that we had experienced the sorrow of being on the vast empty beach, where only the two children and drivers were moving, but the reason that the feeling of emptiness grew stronger and stronger with each passing year, was because Secretary Kim Chong-il had already left the house and was in the phase of abandoning Chong-nam, whom he had dearly loved.
When we withdrew back to P’yongyang after wandering from Moscow to Geneva, Chong-nam was no longer a “cute little boy,” but an 18-year-old young man with a bluish chin. In between, his father started a new life with another woman and had more sons and daughters. He transferred his abnormal “tearful love” for Chong-nam to his new children.
Given that, he was snarled between feeling awkward, as if he had been caught red-handed, and the feeling of having betrayed his son when sensible Chong-nam came back. The uncomfortable feeling of his new marriage life being discovered by his eldest son, and the fact that his son did not complete his rare opportunity to study abroad as a top student, was regrettable enough, and he especially did not like the fact that Chong-nam’s display of his virility was the reason for his return. From his experience, he was extremely worried about the “wandering” of youth, which his son was about to sweep into.
That year, we felt abandoned at Wonsan seaside. The first sign of his discrimination was the fact that our provisions were not supplied on time. That busy head of state made a system in which our provisions could be obtained only through his vouchers for each meal, and it had been a long time since we had experienced the humiliation of no food delivered or the minimum arriving with all the requested items stricken out.
Summer had passed and the water was cold and turned into an off-season moss color, but the children’s suggestion to go back to P’yongyang was not “concluded (approved by Secretary Kim).” It was more than I could take to see the two children waiting only for a fax message or a phone call everyday.
He did not let them go to school, and the outside world was off limits to them. If they sneaked out a step, the punishment could be going to a jail or a Central Party labor camp. Secretary Kim Chong-il always mentioned Sokchong-ri farm, where only Central Party workers were sent for punishment, to threaten the children. We knew too well that the two of them could grow up to be old children without any solution for this. He had a laissez-faire policy about the things he did not like. I know those who got worried to death from such laissez-faire.
Unable to bear it any longer, Chong-nam sent a fax message, almost a notice, to his father that we would leave Wonsan at such-and-such an hour on such-and-such a date to go back up to P’yongyang. That day, we drove on the highway as far as Rainbow Cave to return to P’yongyang. But there was a blocking bar laid down. It said, “cave under repair.” Highways could not be repaired and mended arbitrarily, as they were roads for “the family” (the families of Kim Il-song and Kim Chong-il). After an investigation, we learned that the leader gave an order to block and repair it. Could there have been a reason that we were not aware of? Was it possibly a blockade to keep us from leaving? The children were devastated.
Looking at the two children on the beach that October, I felt fear, as if the vast sea were hardening into lead.
18 May 1991
I sat up, awakened by yelling from the front door. Chong-nam’s voice sounded just like his father’s, and his enraged voice was just like his father’s yelling. A maid came running to inform me that Secretary Kim Chong-il was home.
“He is looking for you, aunt.”
Upon entering the hallway turning toward the front door, the backs of the two children with their heads down, standing side by side, came into sight. The voice of Secretary Kim was bawling and squalling. When I stood behind them, his anger was pointed at me.
“What are you, Aunt? What are you doing? You all conspired to deceive me.”
Chong-nam had had his friends over every night and got caught, as his father made an “unannounced visit” that night. A room right across from Chong-nam’s and a direct phone line was given to Nam-ok, so she could play a controlling role and report on Chong-nam’s life. In fact, Chong-nam’s behavior was automatically restricted a great deal due to the role of Nam-ok, but he made his play legal before her, knowing that she would not “eat him up (by blowing the whistle and getting him buried).”
At first, Nam-ok threatened him by lifting up the phone, but felt so sorry for Chong-nam. How could any one-time rattling solve anything? How was he going to live without friends? His reproach was merciless and personal. Still I begged for forgiveness, crying. Pleading that I was terribly sorry to have caused him concern, I said all the political and party self-criticism expressions that I had learned thus far. Even my 85-year-old mother slipped behind me, standing with her hands put together. How can a fully grown-up man stay confined? How was he going to live if no life were allowed?
It was not the 1970s, wherein he had to watch out for the leader [Kim Il-song], and yet what was the reason for keeping him an “absolute secret?” If no solution were provided for Chong-nam, he would have to continue this life at the age of 30 or 40. I cried in sorrow because of feeling sorry for Chong-nam.
“A royal command” to get ready to labor in a coal mine was issued to the two children, who were bawled out by papa. Material sanction, for us to obtain materials (food) from the platoon, since it would not be given, was also issued. Our provisions were from “food under the care of the Security Bureau” [as published: Howi Sikp’um] from section four of the Central Party, and rations from the platoon were things such as bean paste, soy sauce, salt, and beans that military guards ate.
In 1991, provisions provided to the military were already so poor that it had been a long time since Alaskan Pollack and seaweed, so common before, were cut off. There were no fruits or oils either.
I filled my pockets with the money withdrawn from my savings and searched all the farmers’ markets. It was a farmers’ market in name, but in reality, it was hard to buy even a few eggs, and an apple pecked at by birds was sold at whatever the seller demanded. Money did not have any value because the returned expatriates bartered, and everybody hid what little food they had and loitered around, hunting hungrily for the things the returned expatriates brought out. People’s soiled clothes, their dirty hair, and their shoes, were in such sad shape.
You could no longer see the honest faces of the people who were so decent and diligent. All there was were criminal-like faces, which could turn into thieves at any moment, and non-socialist people as shrewd and sly as merchants.
The children got military duffel bags and put military items like working shoes and gloves, and various medications in there. Thick undergarments available in society were purchased through the Central Party supply center as Japanese Asameri [name as transliterated] underwear were decided to be of too good a quality for a labor site.
The children even got excited with their curiosity about a new life. At least, they would be able to meet our people. They would be able to come in contact with the lives of other people. Experiencing the world in our land and outside the fence was what they desired.
My mother was 85, but reasoned clearly and knew better than we did.
When I was perturbed trying to absorb this “ill-treatment,” while uneasily waiting for the time to come, she beckoned me over. When I approached, she lowered her voice as if in a whisper and gave a gentle smile.
“He would not bring Chong-nam out. What are you worried about? Who would he say the boy is and send him to a coal mine?”
She lightly waved her hand. Indeed, such an instruction was not issued. About two months had passed when the cook got a call and was bawled out for not submitting a grocery request form. My mother saw through the situation then too.
“He spat it out in a fit of anger and forgot about it. It must have come back to him now. Don’t give it another thought. You know his temper.”
Looking back, my mother’s words of deep understanding relaxed my 20-year-long life at the official residence, which was terrifying at times, desperate at other times, and in constant fear and uneasiness under the hard-to-please and fearsome “master,” and planted an optimism with which any momentary difficulty was nothing, if I accepted and lived through it.