SEOUL, South Korea - Covering stories on North Korea from the outside world is a frustrating process. Since the death announcement of the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, on Monday, I have been monitoring North Korean state television nonstop because, unfortunately, it is the one and only source of information for someone sitting in Seoul.
Watching North Korean video coverage of today’s mourning events for Kim Jong Il, whose body is on display for senior officials in a glass coffin in advance of a Dec. 28-29 funeral, two things stood out.
First, where are new leader Kim Jong Un’s two unfortunate older brothers who got pushed aside during Kim Jong Il’s reign – the eldest, Kim Jong Nam, 40, known as something of a “playboy,” and the too-feminine-for-his-father Kim Jong Chol, 30?
Second, who was the pretty young woman standing just behind Kim Jong Un, 28, as he solemnly and authoritatively greeted foreign dignitaries today at Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
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Personally, I always liked Kim Jong Nam. Born to Dear Leader’s first wife, educated in Moscow and in Geneva, he was on track to be the heir in early ’90s until he was embarrassingly arrested in Tokyo for possessing a fake Dominican passport in 2001. He was going to visit, of all places, Tokyo Disneyland.
Since then, I have seen interviews he gave to Korean and Japanese media in Macao, Singapore and China. He seemed like an outgoing, outspoken and a boisterous fellow. There were rumors that, in 2009, his half-brother, Kim Jong Un ordered the internal security to search Kim Jung Nam’s summer house in Pyongyang, North Korea, and purged people who were partying there. Another rumor was that Kim Jong Un attempted to assassinate Kim Jong Nam in China but the Chinese government blocked it.
Last year, Kim Jong Nam told Korean media that he was “not interested” in the succession of North Korea’s power. He has been residing in Macao and his teenage son, Kim Han Sol, was recently spotted attending school in Bosnia.
At today’s mourning ceremonies for Kim Jong Il, there was no sign of Kim Jong Nam, the departed leaders eldest son, greeting funeral guests in accordance with the usual Korean custom.
As for the second elder brother, Kim Jong Chol, the last I recall seeing of him was video of his presence at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore in February. With his ear pierced and wearing black Ray-Ban sunglasses, he seemed far from an image of a serious communist’s son.
Fujimoto Genji, a former Japanese chef for Kim Jong Il, wrote in a memoir that the Dear Leader disapproved of Kim Jong Chol, saying he was “like a girl.”
Well, there was no sign of a pierced-ear son at today’s ceremonies.
Kim Jong Un was accompanied by elderly senior officials in their uniforms. They stood next to him in accordance to their ranks in the Communist Party.
But that woman standing along with the big players in the receiving group: Who was she? At most, she looked no older than her early 20s. Dressed in a traditional Korean black funeral costume with a ponytail and Mary Jane shoes, she was seen bowing at the bier with several high-level soldiers in uniform, as well.
South Korean media speculated she must be Kim Jong Un’s rumored wife. North Korean media has not yet mentioned a word on the “great person born of heaven’s” marital status. But there were reports last month that the 28-year-old Kim married a woman two years younger, a Ph.D. student at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang from the town of Chongjin, North Korea. They gave birth to a daughter last year, according to Daily NK, a website specializing in North Korea-related news, citing sources close to North Korea.
For a moment, I wondered if the mystery lady could be one of Kim Jong Il’s three daughters.
According to South Korea’s Chosunilbo newspaper, citing a government source, she is Kim Yeo Jung, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un. The only previous picture of Kim Yeo Jung made public was one of her as a girl with a chubby round face just like the rest of the Kim clan.
But then again, if the two other sons of Kim Jong Il were not there as main hosts, why would a daughter be there? Besides, this mystery lady looked lean and thin, definitely not round.
So I decided to give weight to the theory that she must be Kim Jong Un’s rumored wife. That makes her the first lady of the most reclusive nation in the world and the wife of a man who now has the nuclear button at his fingertips. As an old Korean saying goes, she sure would have to be careful not to henpeck him for the sake of world peace.