North Korea recalls documentary about Kim Jong Un’s mother

Most North Koreans don’t know Ko Yong Hui’s name or that she was born in Japan.
By Kim Jieun for RFA Korean
2024.06.07
North Korea recalls documentary about Kim Jong Un’s mother Screenshot of the North Korea-produced documentary ‘Mother of Great Songun Korea’.
lovepink4200 via Youtube

North Korea has recalled a 2011 documentary that sang the praises of Kim Jong Un’s mother, two sources inside the country told Radio Free Asia, but the move is prompting people to wonder why the country has always maintained a level of secrecy about her identity and background.

“Since her biographical information has never been officially stated, the recall on the film is actually raising suspicions,” a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

Most North Koreans don’t know her name – Ko Yong Hui – or that she was born in Osaka, Japan, or that her father, Ko Gyon Taek, managed a military factory in the city prior to the end of World War II. 

The documentary, titled “Mother of Great Songun Korea,” leaves out all those facts, the sources said. In lieu of her name, the film referred to her as “respected mother” and showed many scenes of her at Kim Jong Il’s side during his official appearances. 

ENG_KOR_KJU MOTHER_06032024.1.JPG
Screenshot of the North Korea-produced documentary ‘Mother of Great Songun Korea’. (lovepink4200 via Youtube)

It was distributed internally to high-ranking officials, government agencies, and the military on VCD, or video compact disc, in 2011, the same year that Kim Jong Il died.

“Recently, judicial agencies such as the Provincial State Security Department and the Social Security Department have begun rounding up copies of propaganda materials,” the resident said.

“Instructions were given to retrieve and delete documentary films related to the general secretary’s biological mother,” he said, explaining that “Mother of Great Songun Korea” was on the undisclosed list of now-banned materials.

The recall was also confirmed by a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang, who told RFA in the now-banned documentary that “Ko Yong Hui, is touted as having ‘accumulated great achievements that brought about a bright future’” for North Korea.

Made in Japan

Ko was raised in Japan as part of the Korean minority in the country, and in 1962, the family moved to North Korea as part of a repatriation program. 

In the early 1970s, Ko appeared as a dancer in the Mansudae Art Troupe – a popular group of musicians known for propaganda performances that glorify the state and its leaders.

It is not known when she got together with Kim Jong Il, but she is believed to have met him in the early 1970s, and she bore him three children in the 1980s, including Kim Jong Un. Though most sources describe her as having been his mistress, some suggest she may have been his third wife. The government has never acknowledged any marriage between them, however.

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Screenshot of the North Korea-produced documentary ‘Mother of Great Songun Korea’. (lovepink4200 via Youtube)

According to North Korea’s songbun caste system, Ko would be of the lowest caste because she was born in Japan, her father’s job supported the Japanese war effort, and her occupation as a dancer – which would tarnish Kim Jong Un’s image.

Ko’s background does not neatly fit the nation’s founding myth that its leaders are descended from the so-called Paektu Line, named after the Korean peninsula’s tallest mountain, which is the setting of many of the Korean nation’s founding myths, including the lore of the Kim Dynasty.

Kim’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung is the progenitor of the line, and his first wife Kim Jong Suk – Kim Jong Il’s mother – fought alongside her husband in his guerilla army against Japanese rule prior to and during World War II, giving Kim Jong Il near mythical status as the legitimate son of two popular national heroes.

“In the past, previous leaders inherited power based on the purity of the Paektu bloodline and the legitimacy of revolutionary traditions,” the North Hamgyong resident said. 

“Details about the birth and lives of the leaders as well as their siblings, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, were made public and promoted as patriotic examples.”

Erasing sensitive information?

In contrast, Kim Jong Un, due to his mother’s background, could be seen not as a third-generation revolutionary leader, but the illegitimate son of Kim Jong Il’s Japan-born mistress whose father supported the imperialist war effort.

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Screenshot of the North Korea-produced documentary ‘Mother of Great Songun Korea’. (lovepink4200 via Youtube)

If it becomes widely known, that support of imperial Japan could cause problems for Kim Jong Un, Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the California-based RAND Corporation, told RFA.

"Kim is trying to wipe out anything that would potentially challenge his control of the country,” said Bennett. “So the issue of his maternal grandfather having supported the Japanese I mean that's something that could really hurt him potentially. 

“And so that's part of the history he wants to get rid of,” he said.

Bennett said erasing facts about his mother might marginally help his case to stay in power, but it would be more helpful were he to improve the economy and his people’s lives.

ENG_KOR_KJU MOTHER_06032024.5.jpg
Screenshot of the North Korea-produced documentary ‘Mother of Great Songun Korea’. (lovepink4200 via Youtube)

The lack of available information about Ko is causing residents to question what they have been told about their leader, Kim Jong Un, the Ryanggang resident said.

“As the biography of the leader has not been made public even after him having been in power for 12 years, some are raising doubts about the identity of his mysterious birth mother,” he said. “The argument is that if there is no dishonorable family history in the pure Paektu bloodline, there is no reason not to disclose details about her.”

Kim Jong Il was able to claim that his hereditary succession was legitimate because of the purity of his lineage to the Paektu bloodline, the second resident said. 

Kim Jong Un claims the same lineage, but the secrecy appears to be giving people doubts.

“Given the actions of the authorities, who are ordering the recall and destruction of copies of the already released documentary film about his mother, people are questioning whether his is a half-lineage,” the second resident said.

Translated by Claire S. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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