SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - Kim Young-soon was a celebrated dancer who moved among North Korea’s elite before she was sent to prison for nine years. Her crime? Knowing a secret about the private life of heir apparent Kim Jong-il.
It was the secret of an affair Kim Jong-il began in the 1960s with a married actress that he wanted kept from his father and founder of North Korea’s ruling dynasty, Kim Il-sung, which even now is so sensitive it remains air-brushed from the reclusive state’s official history.
Kim Jong-il would eventually father a son with the actress, a star of her time called Sung Hye-rim, or Song Hye-rim, who died in exile in Russia in 2002.
“I have lived a life that cannot be told without tears,” Kim Young-soon, 72, told Reuters in Seoul, where she now works as a dance instructor after escaping to South Korea in 2003. “This is just the frightening way in which North Korea works.”
Much of the story of Kim Young-soon, whose book “I was Sung Hye-rim’s Friend” was published two years ago, have been verified by North Korean defectors, including former high-ranking officials in the secretive state.
Intelligence sources have also verified reports of Kim Jong-il’s liaisons with Sung, whom is believed to have been one of his wives and the mother of Kim Jong-nam, who was born in 1971.
Sung, a school friend of Kim Young-soon, was one of the country’s first big movie stars, with legions of fans including film buff Kim Jong-il.
Kim Young-soon was herself a well-known dancer who met the leader and his son at performances. Her family lived among the elite and her brother was a general who had helped capture Seoul in the early stages of the 1950-53 Korean War.
One day, she met Sung who said she was moving into a place in Pyongyang called “special residence number five” -- a home reserved for the family of the ruling Kim clan.
She knew what it meant. Her friend was to become Kim’s wife.
In other words, not only was Kim Jong-il forcing a woman six years older to divorce her husband to move in with him but, more riskily, he was rejecting the communist revolutionary his father had chosen for him to produce heirs for the ruling dynasty.
It was by repeating the story that Kim Young-soon became a criminal, losing her family, her privileged status and living for decades at the mercy of the North’s security apparatus.
She had not realized just how far Kim Jong-il would go to keep the relationship secret.
In August 1970, Kim Young-soon was a young mother, retired from dancing and working at department store, when she was told to leave on a business trip to a booming border city with China.
She packed her bags, went to the train station and was met by two state security agents who forced her into a Soviet-made jeep.
Interrogated and forced to write her entire life story, she included a line in one of the dozens of notebooks she filled about the conversation with Sung.
“If I knew it would have landed me in the Yoduk political prison, I would have never written it in the statement,” she said. She later speculated an informant had tipped off security about the marriage and her written statement confirmed it.
Kim Young-soon spent the next nine years fighting for food and her life in the North’s political prison camp system, which is thought to now house about 200,000 people. She later choreographed a bone-chilling musical about the prison camps called “Yoduk Story.”
It was not until 10 years after she was released -- after Kim Jong-il had apparently lost interest in the actress -- that she was told by a state security agent why she landed in prison.
“He told me that Sung Hye-rim was not Kim Jong-il’s wife and to forget what I might have heard about them having a child.”
By that time, Kim Jong-il had two other sons with a former dancer named Ko Young-hee, including a boy named Kim Jong-un who is seen as the most likely successor.
“Once Kim Jong-il took up with his new wife Ko Young-hee, (also known as Ko Yong-hui) they went on to erase any remembrance of Sung Hye-rim,” Kim Young-soon said.
“North Koreans really don’t care who will come next. They know that they will have to follow the leader, whoever it is.”
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Miral Fahmy