[The New York Times] Book Explores Kim Jong-un’s Feelings About His Mother, and Other Family Tales

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, promoting his memoir in Seoul, South Korea, this month.CreditJung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL, South Korea — The bloody purges by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, of his country’s elites and the execution of his uncle were driven in part by his feelings about his mother, whose background is a tightly guarded secret in the country, according to a new book by a senior diplomat who defected.

The author, Thae Yong-ho, recounts in the book that Mr. Kim’s mother, Ko Young-hee, was born in Japan — something that was considered a serious shortcoming by North Korea’s ruling elites. Her marriage to Mr. Kim’s father was never endorsed by his paternal grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder.

Mr. Thae writes that since childhood, Kim Jong-un appeared to have blamed the uncle he had executed in 2013, Jang Song-thaek, for preventing Ms. Ko from befriending his paternal grandfather.

The 542-page book, titled “Cryptography From the Third-Floor Secretariat,” recounts Mr. Thae’s life as a North Korean diplomat before he fled to South Korea in 2016, becoming one of the highest-profile defectors from the North in years. He does not spare criticism of the secretive Kim family, which has ruled North Korea since its founding in the late 1940s.

When the North suspended border talks with South Korea last week, it cited as one of the reasons the interviews and speeches Mr. Thae has given in Seoul this month to promote his book. North Korea’s state media called Mr. Thae “human scum” and said he was hurling “mud at the dignity of the supreme leadership” of the North.

A man, center, believed to be Kim Jong-chol, brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore in 2011.CreditKorean Broadcasting System, via Reuters

The book provides a rare window into the life of the leader’s brother, Kim Jong-chol, who is three years older than Mr. Kim but was passed over when their father chose the younger brother as a successor. A former sushi chef for the Kim family who is Japanese has said he once heard their father call the older brother too effeminate to lead the highly militarized country.

Kim Jong-un, 34, is the youngest of three sons of his father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il. After his father’s death in 2011, the younger Mr. Kim took over and consolidated power through a series of deadly purges.

The brothers also had an older half brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was once considered their father’s favorite. He lived in exile abroad until being assassinated in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February last year, a killing that the young leader is accused of ordering to remove a potential challenger to his rule.

In contrast, according to Mr. Thae’s book, Kim Jong-chol receives full protection from his younger brother, enjoying perks available for family members. Little is known about Kim Jong-chol except that he and Kim Jong-un studied in Switzerland as teenagers and that he was an avid guitarist.

In a series of encrypted emails in 2015, Mr. Thae — who at the time was the No. 2 diplomat in North Korea’s London Embassy — received instructions for handling a special visitor from Pyongyang: Kim Jong-chol. He wanted to attend an Eric Clapton concert there.

The leader’s brother was such a fan of Mr. Clapton that the North Korean government once made a deposit of one million euros, about $1,170,000, on a contract to invite him to perform in Pyongyang, Mr. Thae said. But the musician declined and the deposit was returned.

An undated photograph of Kim Jong-un’s mother, Ko Young-hee.

For the London concert, the book says, Mr. Thae was ordered to secure six tickets and two suites at one of the city’s best hotels and to make reservations at top restaurants. After the brother landed in London late at night, flying first-class via Moscow, he ordered Mr. Thae to take him straight to the HMV music store on Oxford Street and to bang on the door to have the store opened for him.

“On my way to London, all I could think of in the plane was visiting the music shop,” Mr. Thae quotes him as saying.

Mr. Kim’s brother was eventually persuaded to instead visit the shop when it opened the next day. But Mr. Thae said the trouble for him and his staff was just beginning. The brother insisted on smoking wherever and whenever he wanted. And despite all the scouting for top-notch restaurants, he also liked to eat at McDonald’s.

On the city’s Denmark Street, which was lined with guitar shops, “he was as happy as if he owned the entire world,” Mr. Thae said. At one shop Mr. Kim picked a guitar and let loose riffs that impressed the shop’s owner so much that they played an impromptu duet.

At the Clapton concert, the book recounts, Mr. Kim snatched up T-shirts, albums and other souvenirs. During the performance, he was completely taken over by the music, standing up, wildly clapping and raising his fist.

Back at the hotel, at the suggestion of the still-excited visitor, the two men and the other North Korean diplomats present drank all of the liquor in their minibars.

Mr. Kim, center left, with Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, behind him during the funeral of Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2011.CreditAssociated Press

But during his 61 hours with the brother, Mr. Thae said, he found him to be completely sidelined from Mr. Kim’s power apparatus. Unlike the other Kim family members — who are usually referred to as “commander comrades” — he carried no such title.

The brother once sang the American song “My Way” in the car and his eyes grew misty, Mr. Thae said. “He was just a guy crazy about music and the guitar.”

Mr. Thae writes in the book that his own disillusionment with the Kim family deepened with the devastating North Korean famine of the 1990s.

While Mr. Thae was serving in Denmark, North Korean delegates came to buy cows for a special farm that provided dairy goods and beef for the Kim family alone. Another delegate came to buy Danish beer for the elites as many North Koreans starved. The country’s diplomats in Europe resorted to smuggling cigarettes to make ends meet while lobbying for humanitarian aid for people back home.

Mr. Thae recalls the Danish government’s telling him and his ambassador that it would provide $1 million in food aid through the World Food Program.

“The Danish minister was speechless when he saw tears in our eyes,” Mr. Thae writes. “But we imagined people back home happy with food.”

Source: The New York Times