The North Korean dictator destroyed her life, and killed her family. For years, she wanted nothing but revenge; not just to see him dead, but to watch him suffer.
In the 1970s, on a whim, the mercurial strongman sent her entire family to the Yodeok Political Offenders' Concentration Camp. The move was a virtual death sentence because few of the unfortunates sent there ever return alive.
She only found out years later what her crime was.
Born in 1937, Kim Young-soon was a trained dancer and a close friend with Sung Hye-rim, the first wife of Kim Jong Il. The marriage circumstances were scandalous: Sung was already married, with a child, whom she left to be with Kim -- who was five years her junior.
Pyongyang officials worried that the sordid details of the union wouldn’t exactly make school textbook reading. So the regime did the kind of unspeakable things that regimes do.
They rounded up everyone who ever knew Sung Hye-rim and sent them to prison. Kim Young-soon was part of the roundup.
Her parents died in the prison camp. So did her husband and eldest son. Her younger son was later shot to death trying to escape North Korea.
Kim Young-soon survived the concentration camp. Years later, at the age of 65, she defected to South Korea and later wrote a 2008 book about her experiences entitled "I was Sung Hye-rim's Friend," in which she described her own fate at the hands of a dictator she had never met:
"I was best friends with Sung Hye-rim, Kim Jong Il's first wife. We were the same age and we attended the same junior high. Sung was a popular actress who was five years older than Kim. Kim Jong Il lost his mother at an early age, so this might be the reason why he was attracted to an older woman. Kim Jong Il is short, and he always wore shoes with about 3 inches of heel. Sung was a divorcee with a daughter. Kim Jong Il did not tell Kim Il-sung [Kim’s father and then ruler of the nation] that he is living with a (once) married woman.
“I was sent to Yodeok prison camp because I knew Kim Jong Il was with Sung Hye-rim. Even Kim Il-sung was not aware of Kim Jong Il's relationship with Sung. Kim Jong Il, a would-be No.1 leader of the republic, was in a relationship with a (once) married woman would be a huge scandal, and Kim Jong Il tried to keep the highest security."
Once, in prison, she met another luckless family. The wife’s relative had worked in a hospital where Sung Hye-rim gave birth to the strongman’s first son. She gossiped about what she saw, alerting the state security officials. To quash rumors about the birth, countless numbers of the woman’s family members of hospital workers were sent off to jail.
That’s when Kim Young-soon realized why her life had been stolen.
Fast-forward to this week when the news of Kim Jong Il’s death hit the mainstream. The reality of Kim’s demise hit her hard.
“I hated him when he was alive -- I wanted revenge,” said Kim, now the vice president of a group here called the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea. “But when I heard about his death, something happened. I began to think about my feelings.”
Forgiveness is not one of those reactions.
“I can’t ever forgive, ever,” she said. “North Korea took away the best years of my life. I suffered because of Kim Jong Il. He had absolute power over so many people. But even he couldn’t fight off death.
“And now that he’s gone, I can let go of my anger. I feel like I’ve been set free.”
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Kim Young-soon spent a decade in prison because of Kim Jong Il. Now that the strongman is dead, she feels justice has been served. Credit: Matt Douma / For The Times