Kim Jong Un’s aunt speaks up after 18 years of silence in the U.S.Caitlin Dickson,Caitlin Dickson Fri, May 27 1:22 PM PDT
Kim Jong Un’s maternal aunt and her husband, known in North Korea as Ko Yong Suk and Ri Gang, in New York’s Central Park in April 2016. (Photo: Yana Paskova/Washington Post via Getty Images)
For nearly two decades, Ko Yong Suk and her husband, Ri Gang, have lived a modest, middle class existence in the United States, working long hours at their dry cleaning business to provide a comfortable life and opportunities for their three children.
But before embarking on their pursuit of the American Dream, Ko and Ri lived a life of luxury inside one of the world’s most reclusive and repressive regimes. Ko’s sister, the late Ko Yong Hui, was married to former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Her nephew is Kim Jong Un, the country’s current leader, who is known for his penchant for threatening nuclear war.
For the first time since defecting to the United States with the help of the CIA 18 years ago, the couple broke their silence in a series of interviews with the Washington Post that offer a fascinating look at life inside the mysterious Kim regime and insight into the childhood of the man who would become one of the United States’ most hostile adversaries. To protect their identities here in the U.S., the Post story uses the names by which they were each known back in North Korea.
Keeping up with the Kims
The Washington Post writes that Ko was “catapulted” from a modest upbringing to the “top echelons of North Korean society” when her sister became Kim Jong Il’s third wife, in 1975.
Soon after, Ko was married to Ri — a husband chosen for her by the future supreme leader himself — and taking care of her own children as well as her sister’s at the Pyongyang compound, where they all lived together.
“We lived the good life,” Ko told the Post, which included dining on caviar and cognac and taking joyrides in Kim Jong Il’s Mercedes-Benz.
The heir to the “Hermit Kingdom”
In 1992, Ko moved to Bern, Switzerland, where she’d spend the next six years looking after her sister’s children — including Kim Jong Un — while they were in school.
According to the Post article, the Kim children enjoyed a charmed upbringing, complete with trips to Euro Disney, “skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming on the French Riviera, eating at al fresco restaurants in Italy.”
Ko recalled that Kim Jong Un, who moved into her house in Switzerland at age 12, “wasn’t a troublemaker, but he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance.”
“When his mother tried to tell him off for playing with these things too much and not studying enough, he wouldn’t talk back but he would protest in other ways, like going on a hunger strike,” she told the paper.
As an adolescent, she said her nephew’s interests included boats and planes and, of course, basketball.
“He used to sleep … with his basketball,” Ko told the Post, adding that his mother had told the young Kim Jong Un — who was shorter than the rest of his friends — that playing basketball would make him taller.
Though it was not announced to the rest of the world until 2010, the Post reports that Kim had known he would become his father’s successor ever since his eighth birthday party, when he was given a general’s uniform in front of the country’s top military brass.
“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said.
The decision to defect from North Korea came in 1998, after Ko’s sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Ko and Ri maintain that their move was motivated by a search for better cancer treatment for Ko’s sister, though the South Korean media reports suggest the family fled out of fear that they would no longer be protected once Ko’s sister died.
“In history, you often see people close to a powerful leader getting into unintended trouble because of other people,” Ko admitted. “I thought it would be better if we stayed out of that kind of trouble.”
They sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Bern and were given $200,000 by the CIA upon their arrival in the states, money they put toward their two-story home, which the Washington Post says is located a “several hours’ drive away” from New York City.
Though they have not seen Kim Jong Un since he was a teenager and insist they have no real knowledge about the actual inner workings of the North Korean government, the Post writes that, “U.S. intelligence on North Korea is so thin that this couple still represents a valuable source of information on the family court.”
Ko and Ri said they still sometimes receive visits from CIA operatives seeking their help identifying North Koreans in photos, though the CIA declined to confirm any of the couple’s claims to the Washington Post.
After flying under the radar for nearly 20 years, the couple’s decision to share their story was apparently motivated by Ri’s desire to sever ties to his home country.
Ri, the Post writes, “is positioning himself as the person to bridge the widening gap between Washington and Pyongyang” and “has come out of their deep cover to dispel what he calls ‘lies’ being peddled about them and their wider family in North Korea by regime critics in South Korea.”
“My ultimate goal is to go back to North Korea,” Ri told the Post. “I understand America and I understand North Korea, so I think I can be a negotiator between the two.”
“If Kim Jong Un is how I remembered he used to be, I would be able to meet him and talk to him.”