Secret Lives

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The diminutive woman nervously spills some sugar as she spoons it into her coffee. It has been several years since she defected from the inner court of one of the world's most secretive dictatorships, and until now she has not had the courage to give an interview to the Western press. Today, Sung Hae Rang lives far away from totalitarian North Korea, in an austere, white walled, one-bedroom apartment in a European location she insists not be identified in print. Now in her late 60s, she tries to speak well of the man she fears, whom some say is the greatest threat to global peace. "Everyone wants to know about Kim Jong Il—who he is, what he's capable of," she says of North Korea's ruler. "But you can't base his entire personality on your opinion of his leadership. I knew him as a person, as family."

Indeed, Sung lived in Kim's household. Her sister, a North Korean movie star, was one of his three wives. Sung helped raise Kim's son, and her own children—a son and a daughter—were part of the despot's extended family. Sung shared a difficult period in Kim's life as he survived the byzantine court of his father Kim Il Sung, founder of the Stalinist country, to become leader of North Korea himself. She insists there is more to him than the tyrant with the nuclear-cloud pompadour parodied around the world. Many regard Kim as a deluded and dangerous madman—he has stuffed his pockets with vast profits from drug trafficking while his people starve, and just last week he warned of "limitless" retaliation against the U.S. and Japan if they attempt a blockade of the North's illicit overseas trade. But "if you simply write him off as an evil, one-dimensional cartoon character," Sung says, "you are missing half the picture."

Sung remembers sitting with Kim and watching North Korean propaganda on television sometime after he succeeded his autocratic father. "Ridiculous images of well-dressed young children, artificially smiling and posing, flashed on the screen," she recalls. She remembers turning to Kim and saying, "It's so obviously fake. Can't you do something about it?" Kim, looking very tired, replied, "I know. But if I tell them to tone down the artificiality, they will go completely in the opposite direction and find the most dirty, wretched children they can, dressed in horrible rags."

Sung often feels sorry for the man North Koreans call their Dear Leader. "He's on a speeding train. Any move to stop it or get off, it will crash," she says, smacking her hands together. Still, she would rather not let her infamous in-law know her whereabouts. I had gained Sung's confidence only through the mediation of mutual relatives, who arranged for me to spend some 12 hours interviewing her. She agreed to provide a rare inside look at the intimate side of Kim Jong Il, but she speaks of certain subjects with trepidation. Only with prodding does she describe Kim's terrifying volatility. "When he is happy, he can treat you really, really well. But when he's angry," Sung shudders, "he can make every window in the house shake. He has a personality of extremes, all colliding within the same mind."

Sung first met Kim Jong Il in the early hours of May 10, 1971. Awakened by the honking of a car, she jumped out of bed so quickly that she nearly tore the linen dress she wore, hurrying down to meet a man she had until then seen only in pictures. Kim, then 29, asked her to climb inside the large, black car. She knew already that he had secretly taken her sister, Sung Hae Rim, to live with him as his wife and did not want his father to find out. But the situation had become more complicated, as Kim explained in the car. He and her sister had produced a child, named Kim Jong Nam. That revelation made Sung Hae Rang a guardian of what she says was at the time "the biggest secret in North Korea." And it would ultimately turn her life upside down. In 1976, at Kim's insistence, she was press-ganged into the household to help raise Kim Jong Nam because the boy, then five years old, couldn't be allowed to attend school lest the truth about his parentage get out. Sung, whose husband had been killed in an accident, brought her own son and daughter to her new home to provide Kim's boy with companionship. She was also joined by her mother, who had been a respected editor at the Rodong Daily News, North Korea's official press organ.

Sung and her family would spend the next two decades as part of North Korea's "First Family." In The Wisteria House, her Korean-language memoir that she is currently translating into English, Sung describes the experience as living in a "luxury prison," a shadow household built on a foundation of conspiracy and concealment. For puritanical reasons, Kim Il Sung would have vehemently disapproved of his son's nesting with Sung Hae Rim. The younger Kim's new love was six years his senior. And she was already married. That marriage ended, however, because Kim Jong Il forced her husband to give her up.

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