3 Jun 2016

The secret life of Kim Jong Un's aunt

From Nine To Noon, 10:28 am on 3 June 2016
Anna Fifield

Anna Fifield Photo: Twitter

New Zealander Anna Fifield is The Washington Post's bureau chief in Tokyo. She recently travelled to New York to interview Kim Jong Un's aunt, who defected to the United States in 1998.

Interview highlights

Anna Fifield: At the end of last year this aunt and uncle of Kim Jong Un – who had been living in completely living in complete anonymity in America for 18 years – came out of the woodwork and started suing some defectors in South Korea for defamation. And this really grabbed me because I thought, people say bad things about the Kim family all the time. Why would they suddenly come out now and start suing these defectors?

But they did. So I got in touch with their lawyer, and I asked if i could go and interview them, and eventually it did work out. So we travelled to New York and met them. I was quite sceptical. I wasn’t sure whether they’d show up and I wasn’t sure whether they really were who they said they were. But the minute the woman walked in I knew she was who she said she was ‘cause she looks like exactly like Kim Jong Un’s mother.

She was Jong Un’s guardian wihle he was at school in Switzerland. The three Kim children went to school in Switzerland and the aunt and uncle were there to look after them… These were their guardians and they posed as their parents while they were in Switzerland. So they knew the Kim family very well, and looked after them and tried to bring them up in as normal a way as possible while they were all living in Switzerland.

[Ko Yong Suk  and Ri Gang] have been living in [the US] in complete anonymity all this time. Their kids have grown up as Korean Americans, all been to very good universities. The parents own a drycleaner, like so many Korean immigrants to the US. They had been really living this very unremarkable life.

They were kind of apprehensive about talking to me, about talking to anybody, really, about it… It just unfolded that they told me about taking care of Kim Jong Un in Switzerland and what he was like as a boy. They described someone who didn’t like studying very much, someone who was obsessed with basketball, which we know because he’s invited Dennis Rodman twice to North Korea. They painted him as quite a normal kid and they said they really tried to give him a normal life. They had birthday parties and they invited friends over and played with Lego, all normal kid things.

But having said that, they did tell me that Kim Jong Un had been designated the successor at the age of eight. They said that on his eight birthday there was a big party in Pyongyang and he was presented with a military uniform that had the stars to mark ‘general’ on it and that real generals were there bowing to this eight year old kid. So for all the normal life they tried to give him, clearly he grew up knowing that the would one day be King of North Korea.

The reason they chose to break their silence is because the uncle of Kim Jong Un [ Ri Gang] wants to return to North Korea on a visit. He was portraying himself as somebody who could be a bridge between the US and North Korea because he knows both countries so well now. Both of them were very careful about the kinds of things they said. They were not critical of the regime in any way. in fact they kept referring to Kim Jong Un as Chairman Kim Jong Un.

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