When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un studied at a boarding school in Switzerland, his maternal aunt, Ko Yong-suk, was charged with looking after him in the foreign locale for several years.
Then, 15 years ago, Ko vanished.
The JoongAng Ilbo has learned that Ko, 55, sought political asylum in the United States in 1998. She is receiving protection from U.S. authorities, according to a source who was a high-level official in the National Intelligence Service at the time, which was during the Kim Dae-jung administration.
Both Ko and her husband had cosmetic surgery to conceal their identities, the source said.
When Kim Jong-un attended the prestigious International School of Berne from 1996-01, his aunt looked after him for two of those years.
Ko is the younger sister of Ko Yong-hui, Kim Jong-un’s mother, who was born in Japan and was a member of Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Troupe. Kim’s mother died in 2004 from breast cancer at the age of 51.
Combining memories of the intelligence source and that of a high-level diplomat who worked at the Embassy of Korea in Switzerland in 1998, the JoongAng Ilbo has learned that Ko Yong-suk and her husband sought asylum from the United States in early May 1998 from the U.S. Embassy in Geneva, which granted it after confirming their identities.
Following instructions by her brother-in-law, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Ko had spent two years in Switzerland looking after Jong-un and hiding her identity from North Korean diplomats.
“U.S. authorities spirited away Ko and her husband without even informing us,” the NIS source told the JoongAng Ilbo, “sending them to the U.S. through a base in Frankfurt.”
Once settling in the U.S., Ko and her husband faced in-depth questioning by U.S. authorities, which extracted a large amount of information about North Korea’s ruling dynasty.
The source said that the couple defected because they knew so many secrets of the internal goings-on in Pyongyang and were scared.
The intelligence source said U.S. authorities gave the couple new identities and “through plastic surgery made them into completely different people.”
They are living in the U.S. with special safeguarding by the Central Intelligence Agency’s witness protection program, he said.
The diplomatic source also confirmed to the JoongAng Ilbo that the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland did not tell Korean officials right away about Ko seeking asylum in the U.S., and that it was only toward the end of May 1998 that they were informed.
When Kim Jong-un’s mother found out that her younger sister had fled to the U.S., she was angry, the intelligence source said. She threatened to track her down and make her pay, saying, “How can she abandon the family and escape just for herself?”
Others asylum seekers from the Kim family include Kim Jong-il’s nephew-in-law Yi Han-yong in 1982. His mother was younger sister of Song Hye-rim, Kim Jong-il’s mistress and mother of Kim Jong-nam. Song also reportedly defected to Moscow in 1996.
Kim Jong-nam, eldest son of Kim Jong-il and Jong-un’s half brother, was the original heir apparent prior to 2010 when he started to live in exile.
Jong-nam drifts among Macao, Singapore and China. His eldest son Kim Han-sol, 19, also leads a nomadic lifestyle, and was last spotted studying in Paris.
BY CHANG SE-JEONG, SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]