In a modest Seoul apartment lives Sung Il-gi. To most people, his name would not ring a bell. At the age of 84, he is partially paralyzed on the right side of his body and has difficulty moving around. You would be forgiven for thinking he is an ordinary pensioner.
But his story, and that of his family, are far from ordinary: Sung Hye-rim, one of his two sisters, was allegedly the second wife of Kim Jong-il, the late leader of North Korea; and Sung’s nephew, Lee Han-young, was a high-profile North Korean defector, assassinated near Seoul in 1997 by unknown assailants. And his other nephew, Kim Jong-nam – once North Korea’s heir apparent and half-brother of current leader Kim Jong Un — was murdered in Malaysia only last year.
This is a story about tragedy, reunion and loss. This is the story of Sung Il-gi.
I live next to Gye-dong, a neighborhood in central Seoul. While searching for an apartment in the area, I had a local realtor point to a large house that he said once belonged to a rich man, but that the land was being claimed by someone in North Korea. I thought such claims were ludicrous, but found out that it was not without precedent: In 2008, a North Korean citizen filed a lawsuit in a South Korean court — and won — reclaiming property rights for land that belonged to him before he went to North Korea in 1951.
Intrigued, I set out to find out more about the house. A quick online search revealed one name in connection: Sung Il-gi, often accompanied by the catchphrase “Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law” in local media reports.
“I used to have sixty journalists in here at one time,” Sung told me when we met at his home in Seoul. “But now, I’m waiting here for death to take me,” he repeated several times during the interview. There were no signs in his house that hinted at any North Korean connection. It looked like a standard Korean apartment. The kitchen gave way to the living room, where two armchairs sat in front of an old television, and an electric heater ran continually to keep cold air at bay.
For years after the Korean War, like hundreds of thousands of other South Koreans, Sung was separated from his family north of the border. His parents and two younger sisters had settled in North Korea just before the war erupted in June 1950; for decades, Sung had had no idea what had happened, whether they were still alive. He was all alone in South Korea.
In the mid-1980s, Sung received an unexpected visit from the Agency for National Security Planning (now known as the National Intelligence Service), South Korea’s main spy agency. Intelligence officials told him that Lee Han-young, a North Korean defector who had recently escaped to the South, was in fact his nephew. Lee, a son of Sung’s sister Sung Hye-rang, defected to South Korea in 1982 at the age of 22. To avoid exposure, he changed his name (from Ri Il-nam) and reportedly underwent plastic surgery.
“Han-young was a good boy,” Sung said of his nephew. “Looking back, I can say that I spent a lot of money on him — money well spent. He’d come around often since I was his only family. He was so much fun to be with.”
Through Lee, Sung would discover a terrible family secret: that his other sister Sung Hye-rim had given birth to a son for North Korea’s then-leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-il, himself a son of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung.
This child was Kim Jong-nam, who until about a decade ago was considered by some North Korea watchers to be the heir apparent to the dynastic throne of North Korea, before the current leader Kim Jong-un (Jong-nam’s half-brother) emerged seemingly out of nowhere to assume power following their father’s death in 2011.
Jong-nam, widely known as a playboy and gambler, was assassinated in February 2017 by two women who smeared a toxic substance on his face at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. The two culprits claimed they were paid to pull what they thought was a hidden-camera prank that would launch their careers as celebrities.
It was later revealed that Kim Jong-nam was killed by the VX nerve agent — the “most potent of all nerve agents” — which contracted his muscles, exhausted his pulmonary and artery functions, and caused a seizure. Kim died within fifteen minutes. Besides the two women, four North Koreans were also charged in a Malaysian court for the killing but fled the country. The trial of the two women is ongoing. Pyongyang has denied involvement in the death.
“Both my nephews were murdered. Jong-nam and Han-young. All dead,” Sung said.
Kim Jong-il’s Woman
Kim Jong-nam’s life began in no less a dramatic way. Rumor has it that in the late 1960s, Sung Hye-rim was married to Ri Pyong, son of the chairman of the Korean Writers’ Alliance (a North Korean state entity for publishing propaganda literature), and already had one child. Sung Il-gi claims she was introduced to Kim Jong-il by her husband, who was at one point Kim’s classmate.
Sung caught the eyes of Kim Jong-il, a film enthusiast, as she was already a famous North Korean actress at the time. In an unknown sequence of events, she eventually divorced her husband to be with Kim, who himself was married. According to Kim Young-soon, a defector who claims to have been a close friend of Hye-rim (but of no relation to the ruling Kim family), she moved into “special residence number five” in 1969, an abode reserved for the Kim family; two years later, her son Jong-nam was born. The relationship was never public.
“Although unofficial, Hye-rim was Kim Jong-il’s wife,” argued Sung Il-gi. His other sister Hye-rang, who was also reportedly taken to live at the Kim residence, told Time magazine in 2003 that she did not know for sure whether the marriage had been legal or not. Kim Young-soon, Hye-rim’s friend, contended in an interview with Reuters seven years ago that Kim herself and her entire family were sent to a concentration camp for nine years, simply because she knew about Hye-rim’s secret relationship with Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il eventually met another woman who would give birth to “that fatty,” Sung said, referring to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young current leader. Sung Hye-rim was effectively booted out. Others, like Hye-rang, have said that Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung disapproved of the illegitimate relationship with Hye-rim.
Whatever the reason, Hye-rim reportedly went into exile in Moscow, occupying a luxury apartment thought to have been funded secretly by Kim Jong-il, who still bore some sense of responsibility toward the mother of his eldest son despite rejecting her.
According to Sung Il-gi, Jong-nam was raised by his maternal grandmother Kim Won-ju — the Sung siblings’ mother — who by then had become a prominent journalist in Pyongyang. Speaking to Time magazine, Hye-rang said she was asked personally by Kim Jong-Il to raise her nephew. In that interview Hye-rang said that she was indeed joined by her mother Kim Won-ju in the act of rearing Jong-nam.
Hye-rang would eventually join her sister in Moscow. They shared an apartment on Vavilova Street in Moscow, until Hye-rang’s defection in 1996 to a European state. [Editor’s note: The country will remain unidentified, out of safety concerns for Hye-rang, who is believed to still live there.]
On the one side of the border, in the North, the Sung family had come to occupy the highest rungs of society. Despite this, they would succumb to the tyranny of the Kim regime, which to this very day sees hereditary succession as one of its foremost priorities. Sung Hye-rim and Hye-rang became players in this game of thrones. Hye-rim’s son Kim Jong-nam lost his father’s favor and eventually was eliminated altogether due to, Sung Il-gi believes, “rivalry.”
On the other side of the border, Sung Il-gi, alone in the South, found it hard to live a normal life and get a job. Throughout his life, even before learning of his ties to the Kim family, he carried the scarlet letter of having been a communist in a country that ideologically defines itself as the opposite of North Korea.
When asked about his opinion on North Korea, Sung told me he had “no interest whatsoever.” “It doesn’t concern me,” he said. But North Korea has so much to do with who he is now: North Korea was the side to which his family voluntarily relocated without him, the country he fought for during the Korean War, and the state that would ultimately betray his family by expelling or killing its members. North Korea is intimately connected to everything Sung lost.
No matter how he tries, North Korea cannot not concern him, even though he spent a considerable chunk of his adult life saying it does not matter to him.
“Back Then, We Were All Leftists”
On July 27, 1933, Sung Il-gi was born into a family of wealth. He lived in Gye-dong, the heart of old Seoul and a part of the town known today as Bukchon Hanok Village.
“We were rich,” he said. “My father didn’t need a job, but my mother was a journalist.” He said that they lived in “the big hanok in front of the house of Yeo Un-hyeong,” a famous Korean independence fighter and politician whom he knew personally.
His family lived a life of abundance despite the Japanese occupation of the peninsula that lasted until 1945. “In winter, we’d go to hot springs, and in summer, to Songdowon, a popular beach in Wonsan [the east coast of now-North Korea]. You see, I had tuberculosis, so we’d often go to the seaside.”
The family supported communism, which meant that staying in the southern part of Korea was not easy, especially when the Korean Peninsula was carved into two halves in 1945, with USSR troops occupying the north, and American troops in the south. “My father was arrested for being a member of the communist Workers’ Party of South Korea.”
At the time, Sung was attending Posung Middle School in Seoul, but in 1947 left his family and became involved in a movement to make the southern half of the peninsula communist. He joined pppalchisan – pro-North Korean militants who carried out guerrilla warfare throughout the peninsula before and during the Korean War. (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, was one of the most prominent figures in the ppalchisan movement.)
Before the outbreak of war in 1950, his mother, who had already moved north to Pyongyang, returned to collect his two sisters in Seoul and take them north. “I had no idea they were gone,” Sung said.
Teenaged Sung was in Busan at the time, continuing his ppalchisan activities. In June 1950, Sung headed north, all the way to Hoeryong in North Hamgyong Province (currently near the China-North Korea border) where he would attend the Third Military Academy and undergo six months of training under a certain O Jin-u, who was reported to be one of Kim Il-sung’s most trusted advisors and later one of North Korea’s most powerful figures until his death in 1995.
After spending that half year in North Korea, Sung carried out guerilla activities south of the border for the next three years. He was arrested on Jan. 2, 1954, spending eight months in detention. He said that his life was spared by Kim Chang-ryong, a military officer and then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee’s right-hand man, who told him he was too young for this game.
Sung was released in the autumn, but upon his return home, he found himself alone, with no family remaining in South Korea. By then, the Koreas were irreversibly divided, still technically at war, and connected by no communication or transportation channel that would enable a normal citizen like him to seek out family members on the other side of the border.
Rendezvous in Moscow
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when the South Korean spy agency informed him of his nephew Lee Han-young’s arrival, that Sung Il-gi began to hope for a reunion with his family — whom he had believed to be long dead.
With no particular job, Sung had been (and still is, he says) living off the money of his late childless uncle – once “the richest landowner in all of South Gyeongsang Province” in South Korea — an inheritance bestowed on Sung as the only known survivor of the uncle’s immediate family. Besides, no one would hire him — “My mind was tainted, they said,” Sung referred to the words of other South Koreans who criticized his communist past.
“The news that [Lee] was my sister’s son stunned me. I couldn’t believe it,” Sung said, recalling the moment he learned about his nephew. “I had no idea that my two sisters were still alive in North Korea, let alone that one had married into the Kim family.”
But by then, the two sisters were living in Moscow, and Lee, who was secretly in contact with them, arranged a meeting to reunite the three siblings.
Details of the arrangements are unclear. Because South Koreans are legally not allowed to meet North Koreans without government approval, such a meeting would have been unlawful. Nowadays, only explicit permission given by the Unification Ministry permits contact with North Korea. Without this, any attempt to meet, call, fax or even just email can be subject to punishment under South Korea’s very strict National Security Law.
Despite obstacles, unofficial channels do exist. For example, North Korean defectors in the South communicate with their families back in the North via calls to mobile phones with Chinese SIM cards; North Koreans living near the Chinese border can access Chinese mobile networks and communicate with the outside world.
It was in 1995 that Sung was finally able to meet at least Hye-rang, one of his two sisters, at Moscow’s famous Kosmos Hotel. Sung asserts the meeting was “unofficial.” One account says he was accompanied by South Korean intelligence officers.
The brother and sister spent a week together, talking all day and touring the city.
“Half a century had passed, but I could still recognize Hye-rang’s face.” He said they spent most of their time crying. “To be honest, I had nothing much to say. What’s there to say after being separated for almost fifty years?”
But he did not get to meet Hye-rim, the mother of Kim Jong-nam. She was under heavy surveillance and could only communicate with him over the phone.
Sung said he knew his calls with Hye-rim were being monitored, but said he still “spoke his heart out.” One thing he could not bring himself to ask, though, was for his sisters to defect to South Korea. “I was too scared something would happen, considering they were being monitored. They just wouldn’t have been able to.”
Sung’s stories are difficult to verify independently. Neither the National Intelligence Service nor the Unification Ministry confirmed the veracity of his accounts, including his family ties to Sung Hye-rim, Sung Hye-rang and the Kim family. And his testimony is often a mix of history and memory. Some dates mentioned in this article are different from those in other interviews he gave to South Korean media several years back. That said, the story Sung recounts very much matches the details in the 2000 autobiography his sister Hye-rang released, in which she went to great depth talking about her childhood and family, move to the North and life inside the Kim household. Newspaper accounts also mention Sung Il-gi as being present with nephew Lee Han-young when making telephone contact with at least one of his sisters in Moscow.
In 1997, Lee, who had gone public with his life story just one year before, was shot to death in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul, by assailants still unknown to this day. Many believe the culprits were covert North Korean spies operating in South Korea.
Sung recalls that fateful day. His daughter called Lee to meet up, but the nephew said he was busy; they arranged to meet for drinks the next day. But that day never came. “He was only 37,” Sung said.
Sung Il-gi is a tragic, but admittedly more dramatic, example of the hundreds of thousands of Koreans that were separated from one another by the political development on the Korean Peninsula.
Families on both sides of the border hope for reunion one day, but their numbers are dwindling by the year. Inter-Korean family reunions have occurred a total of 20 times sporadically since 1985, with the last taking place in 2015. At least in the South, participants are selected at random while taking into account age and family background – making the prospect of being picked very slim. As of December 2017, there were 59,000 South Koreans on the waiting list for any future family reunion. 42.8 percent of them were, like Sung, in their eighties.
About forty minutes from the center of Moscow lies the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery. The place, administered by the far more famous Novodevichy Cemetery, is the resting ground for many prominent Russian politicians, actors, writers and cosmonauts.
Last December I visited it on a cold, winter morning. I had read in South Korean news articles that Sung Hye-rim was buried there. Two years had passed since I first got to know the story of the Sung family, and I thought that visiting her grave would finally give this strange tale a dose of reality.
On arrival, I found factories nearby pumping fumes into the air. Inside, the atmosphere was different. There was a sense of calm and prestige.
At Troyekurovskoye’s administration building, staff were unable to locate Sung Hye-rim’s resting place at first. We entered different combinations of Cyrillic characters into the computer system, but her name did not show up.
After I insisted that she was buried in Troyekurovskoye, staff made several phone calls. Suddenly, they were able to give a location: plot 13.
Among the many impressive memorials covered in snow, one stuck out as different from all others. Its fencing was grey, ornamented with leaves and marked with a small gravestone, in front of which sat a low altar much like what any South Korean grave would have. The orientation of the grave was toward the west while all others faced east. In Korean characters, the inscription read, “Grave of Sung Hye-rim, Jan. 24, 1937 – May 18, 2002.”
The backside of the gravestone revealed the name of the grave’s sponsor: Kim Jong-nam. I was suddenly covered in goosebumps.
Despite the inscriptions on the gravestone, it was unclear when she had been actually buried there, and whether Kim Jong-nam had visited at all.
It was also unclear what Russian name she was actually registered under, considering cemetery staff could not locate the grave when I first asked. Russian media say her name is registered as “О Сун Хве,” which is the Russian name that corresponds to “O Sun-hui,” a name first published by South Korea’s daily newspaper Donga Ilbo in 2009.
Upon my return to Seoul, I contacted the cemetery to ask again. Troyekurovskoye’s press officer was originally willing to answer questions, but when it became apparent whose grave was in question, he asked for more time while he obtained some confirmations. Finally, he apologized that he could not answer any questions, let alone confirm the existence of the grave that I had already visited.
Donga Ilbo takes credit for “first exposing the existence of the grave in South Korean media,” and reported, quoting an anonymous cemetery caretaker, that the North Korean embassy had asked for Sung Hye-rim’s grave to be registered in the database under a pseudonym so that regular visitors would not be able to find it.
I gave Sung Il-gi a half dozen printed photos of Hye-rim’s grave during the interview, and he exclaimed, “You see! It shows that Jong-nam actually went there to bury his mother.” He seemed happy that his nephew, whom he’d never met personally, had performed his duty of filial piety.
Then he paused, staring at the photos for what seemed like eternity.
Dmitrijus Bozko contributed to this article.
Cover image: Sung Il-gi at his home in Seoul, on Jan. 15, 2018. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)