North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Song Hye Rang Excerpt

We transferred the kids to a French school in Moscow and left Geneva. We began our lives in a house in Moscow’s Pavilova District. Anxious about my son, who still couldn’t enter college in P’yongyang, I went to P’yongyang in January. I could not trust that he [Kim Chong-il] would allow Il-nam to go to college. There were no documents on this child.

Because of the prohibition against going outside, Il-nam suffered in the monastery-like house, without even going to school. He would rummage through my trunk and bribe the drivers with his spoils in order to slip outside to downtown. He became a major headache. Koryo Hotel did not even exist then. The only places he could go were the swimming pool in Ch’angkwangwon, Okryukwan, or a coffee shop inside a foreign currency shop. Seeing my deep disappointment, he said, “Mom, don’t worry. He will send me to college in September.”

This child trusted papa (Secretary Kim Chong-il) like God. At that time, there was a huge campaign to rebuild the West P’yongyang stadium. “Mom, should I go out at night to work at the stadium? All the kids preparing to enter the party are working there.”

“There is no way he’s going to allow that. You’d only be rebuked for trying to go outside.” I felt pity for him, thinking how suffocating his life must be.

“When I go to the Remembrance Tower, I see many Construction College students under the trees, preparing for exams. When I see them, I also want to quickly start studying.” It was painful for me to hear him say that. The Construction College was close to our house. The People’s Army Remembrance Tower was behind our house.

Some time later, I found out that he had sent a letter to the comrade leader. Because the drivers were called into his office daily, they would relay the letter to the leader. Regardless of the sender, the leader accepted and read all letters.

“Prepare Il-nam for entry into the party.”

A while later, the chief received a call from the leader. Il-nam received the deliberation for entry into the party on his birthday, 2 April. Secretary Kim Chong-il’s skepticism on this young kid, who must have “absorbed a lot of revisionism” in six years in the Soviet Union, was cleared up by the kid’s letter.

Through a single letter, the leader became confident that Il-nam was an upright kid from the Mangyongdae school. I think the extension of such special goodwill toward this child brought about the unexpected fortune of overseas study in Geneva in autumn, later that year. During summer break that year, Chong-nam and Nam-ok came from Moscow. Since Il-nam was with Chong-nam everyday, swimming and videotaping things, he was always within Secretary Kim Chong-il’s view.

I was always concerned that the child, who wasn’t accustomed to living in an official residence and didn’t know the leader’s preferences or personality, might make a mistake or somehow get out of favor with that sensitive man. As I saw it, he wasn’t as sensible as Nam-ok. I couldn’t educate him the way I wanted to, since I couldn’t be with him. I always regretted that. When we sat together with the leader at the meal table, I was so nervous that he might make a mistake that I could barely eat.

One day, Chairman Kim Chong-il came home very unhappy and sat by the meal table. When he is in such a bad mood, not only the people around him, but also the entire house almost freezes from the cold surroundings. At such times, we wished we were all dead. Even Chong-nam, who received much love from his father and liked his father, froze like a rock at such times.

Our lunch was naengmyon [cold buckwheat noodles]. Il-nam, who was sitting next to Chong-nam, got up from his seat and stood near Chong-nam so he could put spices into and separate Chong-nam’s noodles with chopsticks. Nervous that he was moving under such a tense atmosphere, I was monitoring his every move carefully. When he tried to fetch the soy sauce bottle from the spice container, he couldn’t pick it up because it was stuck to the spice container. When Il-nam bent down and tried to separate the soy sauce bottle with both hands, Chong-nam whispered to him that he didn’t want soy sauce. This was because, if the soy sauce bottle didn’t get separated from the container, this could become a trigger that detonated papa’s anger. Because the soy sauce bottle wasn’t wiped clean, soy sauce had run down and dried, sticking the bottle to the spice container.

The leader’s naengmyon bowl was only about 30 centimeters away from the spice set that Il-nam had his hand in. Il-nam might pull the soy sauce bottle hard. Something could go wrong, and he might spill soy sauce or vinegar. The bottle cap might even fly toward the leader. I had hoped that Il-nam would stop trying to pull the soy sauce bottle off and get another soy sauce bottle from the kitchen; however, he couldn’t think of it. He was trying to force the bottle off the base set with all his strength.

The leader could get angry at any moment. But the soy sauce bottle made a clicking sound and came off the set. Although the soy sauce lapped around in the bottle, nothing happened, except that Il-nam got a bit of soy sauce on his fingers. At this moment, Il-nam, relieved of nervousness as if to say, “oh, it’s over,” turned toward papa and smiled awkwardly, smiling at that scary man. Seeing that pure and natural smile, papa’s face even glowed with surprise and happiness (at the child’s happy-go-lucky attitude despite his potential anger).

Il-nam’s simple act on that day was something that no one could imitate, and showed his positive disposition toward papa. Ice thawed immediately and a warm atmosphere began to surround the meal table. Either that day or the next, it was a continuation of the soy sauce bottle episode.

“Il-nam, come with me. I’m going to have you get a perm.” Papa looked at us and made a funny face. “I bought a new perm solution, and I need to test it on somebody.”

Il-nam was so happy that he walked toward the leader while wiggling his hips. He sat in the car next to the leader. Seeing them drive off, I felt so grateful to the leader, as if he were God for not hating my son. Could this be my silly motherly love?

On another day, also at the meal table, he said, “Was Il-nam’s father like that? I saw him wear swimming trunks, and his legs were long.” He was very sensitive about the fact that Koreans had their “hips stuck low” on their bodies. Of all the women who worked in our house, only one woman, the old timer Mrs. Ok, had short legs.

When Chong-nam was growing up, his legs were smooth and long like telephone poles. His father was so glad about that that he always put Chong-nam in front of him when they walked together.

“Look at his legs. They look like telephone poles. He is carrying his hips on his back.”

He was very happy and proud that Chong-nam had long legs and was tall, “taking after his mother.” On the day that Nam-ok first came to the official residence, watching her sitting on the sofa, he suddenly said, “Why is that child’s lower leg so long under the knee?” Watching him get surprised, I became surprised in another way. This man scrutinizes things this closely? I didn’t know I found that he had a keen eye for legs.

The fact that he observed not only whether someone’s legs were long or short, but also the proportion of lower legs was an anatomical observation that an ordinary person would not think about in his entire life. I wonder if anyone else knows that North Korea’s high-level officials are being replaced with “long-legged people.”

“The kids don’t look like you. From whom did you get your short height? I heard that both grandma and grandpa (my father) are tall.” (He never saw my father.)

“Yes.” I answered with my entire body, unable to say “of course.”

I don’t care if I’m a midget. I’m happy if my kids have good looks, I thought. As if he understood my thought, he said, “Ah, they say no one hates to hear that her child is pretty.” He spoke while wiping his mouth with a napkin, as if he were lamenting something alone. He showed goodwill when he saw human nature, a human’s pure heart. Drawn in by such a mood, I said, “How could I live if you hated Il-nam?” I also said these words as if I were lamenting something. At that moment, calm warmth permeated the meal table. I had apparently touched Chong-il’s heart.

That evening, my mother said, “What you said last at the table was worth a million dollars.” We were living in a dark cave with sharp winds, groping carefully, confirming each other, and looking for comfort.

After reading “Quo Vadis,” my mother said that elegant arbiter Petronius, who was never victimized by those with power, lived by “following and controlling to the right extent.” Amidst such harmony, we became accustomed to his fiery personality and formed a human bond with him.

“They Say Even a Wet Mouse Looks Pretty to Its Mom…” [Subhead]

It was a hot summer day in a house in Eastern P’yongyang in the 1970s. Secretary Chong-il, who was about to go to the office in the afternoon, returned from his car to look for videographer Ch’ol-su. I think he wanted to find out something about parts for a video machine.

As usual, at the entrance, we (grandma, myself, and Nam-ok) stood with Chong-nam, as well as the employee who manages the leader’s study room and bedroom, and arranges clothes, the young man (Kyu-ch’ae) who looks after Chong-nam, and the chief (P’yon Chae-ui, the central party vice chief who oversees our entire house).

In the corner to the right of the entrance, there was the rear door to the projection room. The chief quickly ran toward the projection room. However, the videographer was not in the projection room. This was a problem. The rule in that house was that, when the teacher (Secretary Kim) was in the house, all employees had to stand by at their places of duty. The videographer in the projection room, the carpenter in the carpenter’s room, the cook in the kitchen, and the manager in the manager’s office. This was because the teacher could call on them any time he wanted. Even, Nam-ok, grandma ,and I had to stand by at the playroom (where Chong-nam usually spent his time). When he pressed a button from his study room, lights turned on at each room, indicating where he was calling from. That the videographer wasn’t in the projection room meant that he had violated this rule.

“He is not in the projection room.” The chief’s face turned red and he said it apologetically. When the teacher rebuked, “Find him quickly,” he ran toward the automatic door near the aide’s office, from which he could call various places.

The automatic door was a few hundred meters beyond the front yard. Kyu-ch’ae and the manager also ran somewhere. This was because there was a space behind the kitchen where cooks and drivers gathered to gossip.

Remaining behind near the entrance, we (grandma, Nam-ok, Chong-nam and I) began looking around, while our hearts raced with fear of Secretary Kim, who had begun to get angry.

We were afraid that he could unleash his anger like lightening. It was abnormal that the calm and hard-working young videographer left the house before the teacher did. With people around panicking, I wished the teacher would show some generosity and leave, postponing whatever order he wanted to give. However, he appeared intent on seeing the end of this.

Chong-nam’s face showed concern, and grandma became very anxious, putting her hands together on her chest. My daughter, who was seeing and hurting from such a tense situation almost daily, showed panic on her face. On days like this, we couldn’t digest the lunch we had just eaten.

The front yard was covered with asphalt, spewing the mid-summer warmth. Although the entrance area was made of marble and covered, even the wind from the Taedong River felt hot. The quick-tempered leader frowned toward the aide’s office, as if to rebuke the chief for not returning quickly.

It took 15 or 20 minutes. The young videographer ran toward us from the direction of the aide’s office. This was a young man that looked like a boy, with short height and a small frame. The buttons on his clothes were buttoned lopsided, and his crew cut hair was wet and erect like a chestnut bur. He was breathless, and he felt so bad that he was about to cry. He was afraid to come closer. He stopped at some distance and fidgeted with his head bowed. Expecting a thunderous rebuke, he trembled in fear. The leader, who was angry and clasping his two hands behind his back, appeared to angrily yell out a word. However, there was no poison in his voice.

“I understand.”

Amidst such tension, the videographer somehow understood and immediately ran toward the projection room. Secretary Kim watched him run. We all looked in that direction. The videographer, who was nervously running up the stairs, slipped and tumbled down the stairs. He got up quickly, and ran into the projection room.

“Umm, a pity.” The leader turned his head in our direction and paced around the entrance. Because the leader’s anger appeared to be somewhat alleviated, the chief explained, “He said he had gone to the garage to shower, because it was so hot.”

The garage was located quite a distance away. Without listening to the chief, he patiently waited until the videographer returned with the list of machine parts. We then knew that his anger had subsided. Even the wind from the Taedong River felt cooler.

A little while later, he said the following to grandma. “When I saw him run toward me, I thought about how sorry his mother would feel for him if she saw this. I was going to curse at him, but…” His voice tapered off as he became emotional. “They say even a wet mouse looks pretty to its mom…”

His refrain sounded like a lament.

An affiliate of 38 North