Kim Young Soon, a choreographer, was arrested and detained in a prison camp for nine years for having been close to Sung Hye Rim, late consort of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Kim lost her parents and sons in the camp and defected to South Korea in 2003. She is the author of the just-published memoir, I Was Sung Hye Rim’s Friend.
RFA reporter Sookyung Lee recently interviewed Ms. Kim:
Q: What was the background of your memoir, I Was Sung Hye Rim’s Friend?
Kim Young Soon:
My 30s and early 40s were the hardest part of my life. I was tormented continuously for the entire nine years I spent at the Yoduk political prisoner camp. That’s when I swore that one day I would expose the cruelty of the camps, and that I would tell the world about the magnitude of the suffering the Kim Jong Il regime has brought upon the North Korean people. That is how my memoir was born.
Q: What is the significance of your book’s title?
For one reason, one single reason—simply for having been Sung Hye Rim’s friend—my family and I endured an unimaginable ordeal for 9 years, and I lost my sons, my own flesh and blood. Had I never known Sung Hye Rim, my life would have taken a different course. I would never have been imprisoned at the Yoduk camp, and I might well have spent the rest of my days in Pyongyang, content with my life in North Korea.
For the same reason that I lost my parents and sons, my own flesh and blood, and nine years of my life, I ended up in the Republic of Korea, which has embraced and sheltered me and presented me with the opportunity of my life: a chance to advocate and fight for the protection of human rights.
Q: Sung Hye Rim was Kim Jong Il’s first mistress and the mother of his first-born son, Kim Jong Nam. You knew her as a friend. What kind of person was Sung Hye Rim?
Sung Hye Rim was kind and delightful, the embodiment of all feminine qualities. When she smiled, she had dimples, and her eyes were barely visible. I always found that to be irresistibly cute. I loved being around her and seeing her happy face.
Q: When Sung Hye Rim met Kim Jong Il she was already married, wasn’t she?
Yes, absolutely. She was married to Lee Pyong, the son of writer Lee Ki-Young, a South Korean novelist who defected to the North during the Korean War. While Sung Hye Rim and I were attending the Pyongyang Academy of Performing Arts, Lee Pyong was studying abroad in Russia. He courted her persistently and even sent her cosmetics from Russia via international mail.
Q: Did you know about her relationship with Kim Jong Il, once they got together?
No, I didn’t. In North Korea, little was known about what Kim Jong Il was doing back then. However, one day in 1967, Sung Hye Rim came to my house and said that she was going to Residence Number 5. I asked her what was to become of her marriage and her husband, but she didn’t answer, and I never saw her again after that day.
Q: Did you know what Residence Number 5 meant?
Certainly. Number 1 was reserved for [then North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung and his close relatives, while Number 5 was for Kim Il Sung’s wife and children.
Q: In the past, talking about Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or the Kim family was an offense punishable by imprisonment in a camp. Is that still the case now?
Nothing has changed. Lee Han Young, Sung Hye Rim’s sister’s son, who defected to South Korea, made some disclosures about the Kim family and was shot by an assassin in 1997.
Q: When you were living in North Korea, did you hear rumors about Kim Jong Il’s lifestyle and his relationships with women?
One would never bring up that topic. One could have discussed that only privately, and only in the company of people who were very close. The political system of North Korea is rigid and invulnerable. For 60 years, the North Korean regime never worried about the economy, but was simply obsessed with keeping all the people in isolation.
Q: What was the most difficult aspect of living inside the Yoduk camp?
Having to wake up at 3:00 every morning and then having to run for almost five miles, while biting on a corn cob all the way, up to the headquarters of our construction detachment. Also, the day my son fell into the water and drowned, the days my parents died, and having to wrap them up in a mat and bury them. I’ve been to hell and back.
There are no words to express that kind of sorrow. Another one of my sons was shot dead. My only surviving son was returned to North Korea twice after having escaped, and became very ill.
When I think of those times, all I can say is that I will never forgive the North Korean regime. The North Korean political prisoner camps are evil. They must disappear off the face of the earth.
Q: You said you didn’t know what charges had been brought against you when you were taken to Yoduk. Did it ever occur to you that it may have been because of your friendship with Sung Hye Rim?
In 1989, a high-ranking official came from Pyongyang to see me, and said: “Sung Hye Rim was never Kim Jong Il’s concubine, and they never had a child. These are all fabrications, nothing but lies. Talk about it again, and you will find no mercy.” That is when I realized that what had happened to me and my family was because of my friendship with Sung Hye Rim.
Q: Is there any message you would like to give to the readers of your memoir?
I hope that South Koreans will become more interested in North Korea, and I hope that all South Koreans will understand how fortunate they are to experience the blessings of freedom and democracy.
Q: What wishes do you have for the future?
I will continue to fight for the human rights of North Koreans. And, as the disciple of the one and only [dance] Master Choi Seung-hee, I will endeavor to pass her legacy on to the next generation in the Republic of Korea.
Original reporting in Korean by Sookyung Lee; Korean service director: Francis Huh; Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu.