Secret Lives

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But Kim's tenderheartedness could seem bizarre, even frightening. Sung Hae Rang remembers seeing her brother-in-law arrive home from a hunting trip in a state of agitation. After storming into the house, he immediately placed a call to a local hospital and asked, in a stricken tone, if "mother and baby" were alright. Everyone stared in bewilderment at the distraught Kim until he explained. While hunting, he had mistakenly shot a pregnant deer. In a fit of conscience, he had rushed doe and unborn fawn to the hospital, where the baby deer was put in an incubator in the maternity ward.

To those around him, Kim's ferocious mood swings represented a constant, and very real, menace. "I know of people who died because he abandoned them," Sung wrote in her memoirs. "Losing ... favor meant the end of one's career and sometimes life." Being a family member afforded little protection. When Kim caught his son with an unapproved girlfriend, he cut off food shipments to the house where Jong Nam lived with his mother and aunt, and threatened to send him to the country's brutal coal mines. Sung remembers begging on her knees with the rest of the family to spare the teen. Kim eventually relented and he forgot about the incident. Completely. Two months later, he scolded the family for not ordering their regular food shipments, apparently failing to recall that he had canceled the order himself.

Kim was at his most dangerous when he believed himself betrayed or deceived. "He hates—positively hates—liars," Sung says. "This is the thing that angers him like nothing else." In 1980 she went on a shopping trip to Helsinki without Kim's consent. Other North Koreans have been arrested for less serious infractions. Returning to Pyongyang, Sung packed her bags, expecting her banishment to a labor camp was imminent. Kim asked her where she had gone and why, although he already knew the answers. Sung, feeling she had nothing to lose, told her brother-in-law the truth—and it mollified him. She was allowed to stay.

Life for Sung's sister was even more perilous. Sung Hae Rim became terrified that Kim Jong Il would throw her into the streets in a fit of rage. Falling increasingly out of favor with her husband, she would take refuge in a house that he kept in Moscow. There, she would soothe her nerves for long periods to recover from his tantrums. She died last summer in her mid-60s in the Russian capital, where she was seeking treatment for stress-related disorders. Sung Hae Rang laments, "She died because of having to live like that for years with Kim Jong Il. That life killed her."

For Sung Hae Rang, there was another way out. In 1982, her own son, then 21, defected to South Korea. Her daughter escaped the North 10 years later, at the age of 26. During a 1996 visit to Kim's Geneva villa, Sung herself slipped away into the city streets and went into hiding in the European countryside. "I was really afraid for my life those first few years," she says. "I hid in a loft. I wandered the streets with a Japanese woman I knew, pretending to be Japanese also. The danger was all I could think about." Her fear was well founded. "The main reason I left [North Korea] was to be near my children," she says. But the year after she defected, her son was shot to death on the streets of Seoul by unidentified assailants.

Today, she says, "my biggest regret was leaving my sister Hae Rim behind." But there is another, more surprising source of sadness in Sung's life. She says she misses Kim's son as if he were her own child. She believes Jong Nam did not have a "normal" upbringing because of the isolation enforced by his father. Even now, she regularly scans newspapers looking for scraps of information about her nephew—and she was particularly distressed to see his photograph in the papers when he sneaked into Japan in May 2001 in an attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland. The incident—and Jong Nam's subsequent expulsion from Japan—deeply embarrassed Kim Jong Il. Now 32, Jong Nam may no longer be the Dear Leader's heir apparent, displaced by a younger half-brother believed to be the son of Kim's third wife Ko. "I don't know what's become of him," Sung says of her former charge, "or what he's like these days. When I defected, I felt like I left him behind, like I betrayed him."

Her voice shakes and trails off. She takes off her glasses and dabs at her eyes. Unable to go on talking about her nephew, the dictator's son, she holds up her hands and brings her story to an end.

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