Uncle of North Korean leader says he defected to US over fear of power politics

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses the fourth conference of artillery personnel of the Korean People's Army.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses the fourth conference of artillery personnel of the Korean People's Army. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle has described how fear of the deadly power politics in Pyongyang drove him and his wife to defect to the United States nearly 20 years ago.

In a telephone interview with South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Mr Ri Kang said the couple had been deeply concerned what might become of them in any power struggle that followed the eventual death of Kim's father Kim Jong Il.

Mr Ri is married to Madam Ko Yong Suk, the younger sister of Mr Kim Jong Un's mother.

"After spending nearly two decades near Kim Jong Il, I had felt the cruelty of power," Mr Ri said on Wednesday (Dec 9). "I thought it wasn't such a good idea to live near that."

Mr Ri and his wife had been tasked with looking after Mr Kim Jong Un while he was studying in Switzerland as a teenager, and rather than return to North Korea, they chose to defect to the United States in 1998.

Mr Kim's mother was very ill at the time and was receiving treatment in Europe. She eventually died in France in 2004.

"My wife thought we could get some good treatment for her sister in the US. I went there out of fear of what those in power can do," Mr Ri said.

It would be another 13 years before Mr Kim Jong Il died, and the transfer of power to his son was relatively smooth.

However, Mr Ri's worries about the pitfalls of Pyongyang's power politics were well founded.

After two years at the helm, Mr Kim Jong Un had another of his uncles by marriage, Mr Jang Song Thaek, purged and executed.

After living in relative anonymity in the United States for so many years, Mr Ri and his wife came under the media spotlight last week when it emerged that she had filed a defamation suit in Seoul against three South Korea-based defectors from the North.

She is seeking a total of 60 million won (S$71,260) for remarks that the defectors made on South Korean TV talk shows between 2013 and 2014.

The alleged defamation covers claims that she once managed a secret fund for Mr Kim Jong Il that her father collaborated during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula and that she had plastic surgery after defecting to the US.

"My wife has a heart condition and she was very upset by what the defectors said," Mr Ri told Yonhap.

The interview did not reveal where the couple lived in the US, but Mr Ri said he was running a successful laundry service.

They have two sons and a daughter who are attending university in different US states, he added.