In 1967, Kim Young-soon was a dancer in Pyongyang, North Korea, when her best friend visited with crazy news.
“I’m going to live in the 5th House,” announced Sung Hye Rim, then a noted North Korean actress, Kim recalled. She was referring to the residence of Kim Jong Il, the crown prince of the Hermit Kingdom, leader in waiting behind his powerful father, Kim Il Sung. To Kim Young-soon, the sudden romance seemed like some perverse fairy tale with little chance of a happy ending.
Worse, the actress was already married.
“I said, ‘What about your husband?’ But she didn’t answer,” Kim, a Seoul resident who defected from North Korea a decade ago, said in a recent interview. “So I didn’t question her any more.”
Sung was the first of a series of women linked to Kim, who died Dec. 17 of a heart attack at 69. Voracious in his appetite for fine cigars, cognac and young women, Kim reportedly took countless lovers, especially after he assumed control of the regime after his father’s death in 1994.
But there were four women whose intimacy with the strongman endured. In all, they bore Kim at least six children.
That intimacy rarely translated to any real influence with the dictator. Although a high-profile woman has taken center stage in the Kim succession narrative, for the most part, the four lovers endured a life behind the scenes, prisoners in a gilded cage.
“The women of the palace didn’t really have a serious role,” said Michael Breen, author of the book “Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.” “They might have had pillow-talk influence — you know, ‘I don’t like this person’ or ‘I really like that one’ — but their roles were predominantly domestic and romantic.”
In the Kim dynasty, however, there were notable exceptions. Kim Jong Suk, the first wife of Kim Il Sung, had been a young revolutionary who helped fight the Japanese invaders. The mother of Kim Jong Il, she was idolized as the nation’s “Female General” before her death during childbirth in 1949.
And there was Kim Jong Il’s longtime partner, Ko Young Hee, mother of Kim Jong Un, the late dictator’s youngest son, whom he handpicked to succeed him as the regime’s third-generation leader. Some believe that Ko was the love of Kim Jong Il’s life, who influenced his decision-making.
“She was the one Kim loved most,” Jang Sung-min, author of the book “War and Peace: Where Is North Korea Headed After Kim Jong Il?” said of Ko, who died in Paris in 2004 while being treated for breast cancer.
Once, after Kim had sentenced his brother-in-law, Jang Sung Taek, to house arrest, Ko talked the strongman into granting his relatively early release, Jang asserted. “She told Kim: ‘Set him free. You need his talent,’” the author said.
Those words proved prophetic: Jang Sung Taek and his wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the only sister of Kim Jong Il, have become guardians of new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his fragile assumption of power.
Still, most palace women were relegated to background status.
“These women were treated like in some long-ago Korean dynasty,” Jang said. “Their role was like some Muslim women today: kept behind closed doors, dominated by men.”
Sung Hye Rim probably had the worst life, observers say.
An avid theater- and movie-goer, Kim Jong Il met Sung after a performance. “She was so feminine, so poised; that’s why he fell for her,” Kim Young-soon recalled.
Kim didn’t even tell his father about Sung’s existence. Not long after the two began living together, Kim Il Sung ordered his son to marry Kim Young Sook, the daughter of a high-ranking military general, who became his only official wife, Jang said.
The two women, experts believe, lived in separate palaces, and it remains unclear how much Kim Young Sook knew of her competitor, who gave birth to Kim Jong Il’s first son, Kim Jong Nam. The boy was kept secret from Kim Il Sung for years, expert say.
“The rumor was that Sung Hye Rim was in the hospital giving birth to Jong Nam when the wife showed up,” Breen said. “They had to sneak her out a window and hide her in the bushes.”
Divorced, five years older than Kim Jong Il, Sung eventually became a potential palace embarrassment. The North Korean secret police imprisoned many of Sung’s friends and family members for fear they would spread word of the relationship, Jang and others said. Those jailed included Sung’s best friend, Kim Young-soon, who along with her entire family was dispatched to a concertina-wired gulag, where her parents, husband and son died.
Experts say Sung became terrified of Kim Jong Il’s fits of rage and fled to Russia, where she died in 2002.
Kim’s last lengthy relationship featured a fierce female companion. Kim Ok, a classically trained pianist and the “Dear Leader’s” secretary since the 1980s, became Kim’s caretaker after his stroke in 2008 and enjoyed sway unknown by her predecessors, giving direct orders to or scolding regime officials. Rumors have it that she may have given Kim Jong Il a daughter, according to Korean news reports.
Kim Ok accompanied Kim Jong Il on a trip to China shortly before his death and was among the mourners who viewed his body as it lay in state last week.
So far, North Korea watchers have yet to identify any significant other in the private life of Kim Jong Un. But author Jang has a stern word of advice for any future palace-dwelling woman: Watch what you wish for.
“To be the love interest of a North Korean leader seems more of a curse than a blessing,” he said.
Jung-yoon Choi of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.