Secret Lives

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Nobody—including Sung Hae Rang—knows for sure if Kim Jong Il and Sung Hae Rim held a clandestine wedding ceremony or if Kim opted to avoid the stamp of officialdom so that their secret life together would be easier to conceal. What is clear is that Kim could not afford to suffer his all-powerful father's disapproval by going public about his new family. Kim's mother had died when he was only seven and his father had remarried. As heir presumptive, he had to maneuver against an ambitious stepmother who wanted her own son, Kim's half-brother, to be her husband's political successor. Kim's fate, perhaps even his life, depended on not giving his enemies the means to diminish his standing with his father, whom he both feared and revered. He was, Sung says, "afraid of disappointing his father, and his behavior reflected that." Obsessively so. Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, would never find out about the peculiar household his eldest son had set up with Sung Hae Rim in 1970.

Fear of his father couldn't keep Kim Jong Il from Sung Hae Rim. He was completely besotted with her. He was a film buff, passionate about the movies, and she was a beautiful and famous star of North Korean cinema. The two had become "pals," says Sung, through this mutual interest. Meanwhile, the actress saw the match partly as a way to lift political pressure from her own family. Her father was a wealthy South Korean landowner who sympathized with the Communists and moved north. In spite of that sacrifice, he was persecuted in his adopted country as a member of an enemy class. But politics was just one part of the actress's calculations, says Sung. Her sister was genuinely fond of Kim Jong Il and felt sorry for him because he grew up without his own mother. If it weren't for his father's potential disapproval, Sung Hae Rang believes, the match might have proved much happier. "If circumstances had been different," she wrote in her memoir, "they could've made a great couple." Instead, no one outside a tiny circle knew they were partners until after his father died and was succeeded by Kim.

Life with Kim was luxurious. He stashed the family away in secluded villas and seaside pavilions, and occasionally granted permission for them to make overseas shopping trips. Their affluence was a marked contrast to the poverty of the huge majority of North Korean citizens. Sung says she was often baffled by Kim's indifference to the fate of his subjects. "He wastes money holding lavish festivals, forcing people to participate in these spectacles, while so many go hungry," she says. "My heart hurts when I think of the starvation. These are my people, and there's nothing I can do."

Sung's own existence, though hardly spartan, had its privations, too. Kim was obsessed with the family's movements and whereabouts. Though the members were allowed to travel, they could do so only with his approval. "We were hidden away, trapped," says Sung. There was the constant danger of discovery. Sung recalls when Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il's son, then four years old, was ill and had to be taken to the hospital. At the same time, Kim's stepmother and half-brother decided to take an official tour of that very hospital and were headed for the children's ward. Sung's own mother, sitting at Jong Nam's bedside, lifted the sick child onto her back and crept out of a window, taking refuge in a strand of poplar trees beside the hospital. "She took each step carefully, so the crunching of the leaves wouldn't be too loud," says Sung. After that, she recalls, "we couldn't even go to the hospital." Later, when the hospital became a convenient spot to avoid prying eyes, "that became the only place we were allowed to go."

As the years went by, Kim's ardor for his actress wife cooled. He was unfaithful. He started up at least two other families—and what little latitude Sung Hae Rang and her sister enjoyed shrank further still, as he plotted their schedules so that they would never run into the other women in his life. Sung Hae Rim never grew accustomed to such buffeting. She tried to cope with the fact that Kim Jong Il had to marry Kim Young Sook, a woman his father had picked out for him but whom he never really cared for. More devastating was his relationship with Ko Young Hee, a Japanese-born ethnic Korean and a dancer, who would displace Sung Hae Rim in his favor. Ko eventually became one of Kim's wives, although—as with Sung Hae Rim—it's not known whether or not he felt it necessary to officially marry her. For years, Kim Jong Il would never appear in public with any of his three consorts, denying them the secure status of "First Lady." That role was filled instead by Kim's politically powerful younger sister, Kim Kyung Hee.

Sung Hae Rang insists that her brother-in-law can be very affable and has an engaging curiosity about people: "He'll ask you about yourself, about your thoughts and opinions. He has a talent for making people feel at ease when he wants to." His curiosity also expressed itself in his obsession with the arts. He has an enormous personal library of movies, music and books—10,000 to 20,000 books, according to Sung, most collected by her mother, the former newspaper editor. Kim's love of food is also legendary: Sung says he enjoys cooking two Japanese specialties—sukiyaki and teppanyaki. A tennis fanatic when he was younger, his increasing corpulence later became a preoccupation, she says, so he exercised daily by swimming laps.

As for Kim the family man, Sung is anxious to give him credit for adoring his young son. When Jong Nam was an infant, Kim would patiently coo the child to sleep while carrying him on his back. As the boy grew older, Sung says Kim became increasingly convinced that Jong Nam was suffering from being cooped up in secluded villas. "We moved back and forth between the houses at east Pyongyang and Chungsangdong," she says. The boy "needed a change of scenery. He was going stir-crazy, not being allowed to go out." Kim granted a bit of leeway, allowing the sisters to travel with his son to residences in Geneva and Moscow.

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