Meet the next generation of North Korea's ruling family -- while you still can.
- By Dennis P. HalpinDennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
In the mid-18th century, Korea was ruled by King Yeongjo, who governed according to austere Confucian principles. One day, he began to hear reports that his son, Crown Prince Sado, was addicted to wine and women; more worryingly, Sado would wander the streets at night, randomly committing murder. There were even rumors that Sado sought to overthrow the king and seize power. Fearing for the safety of his kingdom but unable to order the death of his own son, Yeongjo ordered him placed outside in a box used for the storage of rice. Most Koreans know what happened to the "rice box prince," as Sado later came to be known — he died of starvation and suffocation, as those in the palace heard his cries for help.
Fast-forward 250 years later, and we’re back asking the same question: Is blood really thicker than water? Ordering the execution of one’s uncle, as Kim Jong Un did on Dec. 12, is brutal in any culture, but especially so in a place like North Korea, where even decades of totalitarian rule have not worn away strong Confucian traditions of filial piety. It’s important to remember that Jang Song Thaek, who was long thought to be the second most powerful man in North Korea, married into the Kim family. But Kim still violated a serious taboo by having him killed.
As the dust begins to settle on Pyongyang’s most public display of raw power in decades, the next big question is what will happen to the rest of the Kim family. Will one of his sisters grow increasingly influential? Will one of his brothers attempt to scamper away to Seoul in search of political asylum? And will anyone choose to stay and fight against the regime, under the threat of that midnight knock on the door?
Here are Kim’s five most important extant family members, and their likelihood of survival.
Name: Kim Kyong Hui
Likelihood of survival: Very Good
Kim Kyong Hui married Jang in 1972 (decades before he was accused of "thrice-cursed treason" and declared "human scum"), but they had reportedly been estranged for some time. Some suggest she was irked by Jang’s alleged womanizing; others say that their daughter’s 2006 suicide strained the marriage. In any event, it makes sense for Kim, who holds the rank of four-star general and is a secretary of the ruling Workers Party, to distance herself from her disgraced husband. It seems like she has succeeded in doing so, at least for now: On Dec. 19, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Pyongyang had included Kim Kyong Hui’s name on the list of a funeral planning committee for a deceased party official. "By placing Kim Kyong-hui’s name on the list, North Korea officially confirmed that she is alive and well," Lee Soo-seok, who is affiliated with South Korea’s Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security, told the newspaper. (It’s important to note that this, like almost everything written about the North Korean elite, is speculation.)
While the 67-year-old Kim Kyong Hui did not appear in footage of the Dec. 17 commemoration of the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, this is not necessarily a sign that she has lost favor with her nephew: She is thought to be in failing health, which could have prevented her from attending.
Of all the relatives, Kim Kyong Hui is the most protected by her family position. Kim Jong Un’s own legitimacy comes from the bloodline he shares with his father, Kim Jong Il, the deceased former leader of North Korea, and his grandfather, the deceased founding leader Kim Il Sung. In August, Chosun Ilbo claimed that North Korea had revised the Ten Fundamental Principles of the Korean Workers Party, an important party text, to legitimize hereditary succession by adding the phrase: "North Korea and the Workers Party will be kept alive forever by the Baekdu bloodline." This bloodline is named after the sacred Baekdu Mountain on the Sino-Korean border, where Kim Il Sung reportedly launched his anti-Japanese guerilla campaign and where North Korean propaganda claims Kim Jong Il was born (pssst, he was actually born in Russia). The addition of the phrase seems to suggest an increasingly non-Marxist emphasis on family bloodline, rather like "the Divine Right of Kings," as the basis for regime legitimacy in North Korea.
As the premier surviving member of the Baekdu bloodline, Kim Kyong Hui is probably very safe. It would be a surprising move indeed if Kim Jong Un were to gun down the last surviving child of his dynasty’s founder.
Names: Kim Sul Song and Kim Yeo Jong
Relation: Half-sister and Sister
Likelihood of survival: Good
Like his father, Kim Jong Il, who relied on his sister Kim Kyong Hui for support and advice, Kim Jong Un may be giving increased responsibility to his sisters. The 38-year-old Kim Sul Song, a favorite of Kim Jong Il, was rumored to be one of the "masterminds" behind the Jang purge, according to an unnamed source quoted by Hankyoreh, a South-Korean newspaper. Almost nothing is known about her, but there’s also little reason to think she’d be executed.
The first public image to appear of Kim Yeo Jong was at the December 2011 funeral of her father Kim Jong Il. In the video, she stands tearfully, dressed in a black hanbok, Korea’s traditional dress for women, just behind her elder brother Kim Jong Un. As a possible sign of his confidence, Kim Yeo Jong is entrusted with "protecting and managing the affairs" of the daughter of Megumi Yokota, the most famous of the citizens abducted from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the Japan Times. The fate of the abductees is probably the most important issue for Japan’s bilateral relationship with Pyongyang, so Kim Yeo Jong’s role would be symbolically important for both sides. It is unclear what Jang’s purge means for these two women, but Kim Jong Il trusted his sister — possibly because he didn’t see her as a threat to the throne — and Kim Jong Un may see fit to do the same.
Name: Kim Jong Chol
Likelihood of survival: Excellent
North Korean defector Lee Yun Keol claimed the 32-year-old Kim Jong Chol was the chief executioner of Jang’s purge. This is somewhat surprising, given that Kim Jong Il reportedly passed him o
ver for the throne, identifying him as "too effeminate" to run North Korea. Lee, who runs the private research organization North Korea Strategic Information Service Center, also claimed that Kim Jong Chol "personally led" a team of soldiers "hand-picked" from Kim Jong Un’s bodyguards to arrest Jang, and that he was personally "armed with a pistol" when he went to arrest his uncle. No one in Pyongyang would dare call Kim Jong Chol a sissy now.
He also reportedly now runs the "Pongwhajo," or Torch Group, a group of elite youth to which Kim Jong Un formerly belonged. Kim Jong Chol is showing himself to be useful to his younger brother — and that they’re from the same birth mother, Ko Young Hui, may give them an even closer relationship.
Name: Kim Jong Nam
Likelihood of survival: Not Good
Being the eldest male in the family would normally have made the 42-year-old Kim Jong Nam the top choice for succession. But in May 2001, his arrest at Tokyo’s Narita Airport — as he attempted to enter Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport — publicly embarrassed Kim Jong Il. (Kim Jong Nam had wanted to take his son to Tokyo Disneyland.) Kim’s chances were further worsened by the stigma of his mother Song Hye Rim, of whom his grandfather Kim Il Sung reportedly strongly disapproved.
Partially because of this, and because Jang had no male heir, he and Kim Kyong Hui reportedly played a large role in raising Kim Jong Nam. Kim Jong Nam, therefore, probably has strong feelings about his siblings gunning down his father figure. And Kim Jong Un may see his half-brother as a threat.
Though he hasn’t said anything publicly about the execution, Kim, who is thought to currently live in exile, shuttling between Singapore and China, needs protection. In 2012, Seoul arrested a North Korean agent who confessed to having been instructed to kidnap Kim Jong Nam on orders from Pyongyang.
Possibly because of his link to Jang, who was the regime’s point man on its relations with Beijing, Kim Jong Nam may be a Chinese favorite. South Korean media have speculated that Beijing sees him as a contingency plan if things go badly in Pyongyang. If Kim Jong Un were to successfully kidnap his brother and bring him back to Pyongyang, he probably wouldn’t imprison him in a rice box. But his future would be grim.