Firsthand exposés about the personal lives of North Korea’s leaders can put the lives of their authors at risk, even if they are far away.The latest tell-all, published in Austria by two journalists to whom former Army Col. Kim Jong-ryul told his story, is a case in point.
By his own account, Mr. Kim – who describes the dozens of villas and beautiful furnishings included in the lavish lifestyles of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il – says he realizes the danger.
“Maybe I’ll be shot, killed in the next few days,” Kim Jong-ryul, who escaped North Korea in 1994 and now lives at a secret address, told reporters in Vienna after the book came out. At least, "now I can die with a clear conscience," he said. But “without [publishing] this book, I didn’t want to die.”
The book adds to a growing body of evidence of the selfishness of the North's Kim Il-sung, who ignored the suffering of his people while focusing on his own comfort and safety. An engineer, Kim Jong-ryul said he was asked to design a special filtration system for the shelter in which Kim Il-sung and his family could hide in order to survive a nuclear attack.
The Great Leader, as Kim Il-sung was routinely called, placed special agents in Europe just to buy the fancy items he wanted. An agent in Romania, for instance, bought a small Cessna plane for him, as well as hunting rifles. Kim himself sometimes spent months at a time looking for all the goods, big and small, on the shopping list.
To go public with such juicy tidbits is enough to invite the death penalty – even for those who manage to flee the country. Activists agree such fear is not the stuff of paranoia. “It’s very dangerous to write about North Korea,” says Peter Chung, who runs an organization in Seoul called Justice for North Korea, which is dedicated to helping defectors.
“In the Dictator’s Service,” written in German by Austrian journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi, reveals the dietary cravings and demands, the parties and the lovely surroundings, in which Kim Il-sung existed for much of the 49 years that he ruled North Korea. He died in 1994 after ensuring that his son, Kim Jong-il, would succeed him.
A crime to have known anything
It may be even more dangerous to write about the man who's known in the North as the Dear Leader.
The nephew of Song Hye-rim, a woman who became either Kim Jong-il’s second wife or longtime consort, and bore his oldest son, was assassinated in Seoul in 1997 after writing memoirs about the dictator. Lee Han-young had been living in Seoul since defecting in 1982 until a pair of gunmen killed him outside the apartment of a friend.