Kim Jong Un's aunt runs dry-cleaning shop in US

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kwisong Saltern to learn about the salt production.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kwisong Saltern to learn about the salt production. PHOTO: REUTERS

Since defecting 18 years ago, she has been living a secret life with husband, three kids

WASHINGTON • The aunt of North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un lives anonymously in the United States, where she runs a dry-cleaning business after having defected in 1998, The Washington Post has reported Friday.

Madam Ko Yong Suk - who lives with her husband Ri Gang and their three children under assumed names - was the sister of Madam Ko Yong Hui, one of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's wives and mother of Kim Jong Un.

Close to North Korea's communist regime, the couple was sent to Switzerland to look after members of the ruling family studying there, including the state's current leader.

"He wasn't a troublemaker but he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance," Madam Ko said of Mr Kim in an interview with the Washington Post in New York City and at her home, which was identified only as "several hours' drive away".

"When his mother tried to tell him off for playing with these things too much and not studying enough, he wouldn't talk back but he would protest in other ways, like going on a hunger strike."

Madam Ko said Mr Kim was born in 1984, not in 1982 or 1983 as previously believed - meaning he was just 27 when he took over from his father in 2011.

Mr Kim's main interest was basketball, Madam Ko said. "He started playing basketball, and he became obsessed with it," she said, adding that he even slept with a basketball.

Mr Kim is reported to have been a Michael Jordan fan and as leader, he has hosted former basketball star Dennis Rodman several times in Pyongyang.

Mr Kim knew from 1992 that he would become North Korea's leader, Madam Ko said. The signal came on his eighth birthday when he received a general's uniform and the country's military top brass began bowing to him.

It remains unclear why Madam Ko defected to the US, where she arrived with her husband after showing up at the US Embassy in the Swiss capital Bern.

But Madam Ko's sister had terminal breast cancer and the couple believed they might lose their privileged status after the children they were charged with looking after in Switzerland grew up, the Post reported. Analysts suggested that they may have also been concerned about their position if Madam Ko's sister, their link to the regime, died.

After months of questioning, the family was eventually resettled in the US, a few hours' drive from New York City where they started new lives under assumed names not revealed by The Washington Post.

They bought a house with financial help from the Central Intelligence Agency.

"My friends here tell me I'm so lucky, that I have everything," Madam Ko said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Kim Jong Un's aunt runs dry-cleaning shop in US'. Print Edition | Subscribe