Male Cinderellas

Jang Song Thaek funeral

Hot on the heels of Kim Jong-pil’s gorgeously atmospheric and unpleasant memoirs, comes former NIS apparatchik Ra Jong-yil‘s book about Jang Song Thaek, which looks to be a humdinger:

… Stories of sons-in-law marrying into privileged families are not altogether uncommon on either side of the Korean divide. Though the stakes were different – no one ended up publicly purged and executed – a useful comparison can be found in the story of Lim Woo-ja, who married Samsung Electronics CEO Lee Kun-hee’s daughter, Lee Boo-jin, also an executive in the conglomerate. In both cases marrying well brought great privileges but also severe consequences.

Jang and Lim share commonalities in their backgrounds. Jang was a talented and ambitious person who earned his way into Kim Il Sung University but who was not from the Kim family’s privileged bloodline. Lim captured the attention of the South Korean media by marrying the Samsung head’s daughter despite being an “ordinary” office worker at the company. Like Jang, Lim’s career after marriage was full of fortune. He was promoted to vice president of Samsung Electronics in 2011, a position out of reach for most employees and, despite their later divorce, he is still serves in an advisory role at the company.

But Lee did divorce Lim in 2014, and Lim has been dogged by legal procedures ever since. Lim would not be purged or killed as Jang was, but has dealt with a steep decline in living standards, later writing of how his son tasted ramen for the first time after the divorce.

Ra’s book on Jang contains many other instances of how family history invades one’s private life, especially in the North: Jang’s older sister had to divorce her husband due to his family’s past record as a landlord during the Japanese colonization of Korea before the end of World War II. Lim’s family faced a similar tragedy. “Including my father, our family couldn’t meet my son from his birth until September 2015, when he turned 9 … Before the negotiations to meet my son, I couldn’t have free time with my son outside,” his letter read.

His ex-wife would cite Lim’s excessive drinking patterns as a reason for their divorce, which, if true, would be something else he shares with Jang. “I cannot stop drinking. Tens of thousands people are starving in the fatherland. I cannot sleep because of those starving people,” Jang used to say, as quoted by the book.

Jang was chosen by Kim Jong Il, who needed an ally during his preparations to succeed from his father Kim Il Sung. The young and talented Jang, who had been deeply affected by Kim’s younger sister, was a perfect partner. Ra says this was why Jang could overcome the differences in social standing between him and the country’s most privileged household. However, it also meant that he would serve Kim Jong Il “hand and foot.” Secretive tasks to satisfy Kim’s preferences were his primary job, including organizing parties with female entertainment for Kim and other elites, as well as obtaining luxury goods for Kim’s family.

This is a critical factor which featured his declining years, the author said. Due to the national emphasis on the bloodline, Jang’s position had fundamental limits. His prominence did not originate from his capacity but through Kim Jong Il’s choice. Between Kim Jong Il’s passing and Kim Jong Un’s rise, Jang’s presence became a nuisance for the young leader, eventually leading to his sudden end in late 2013.

Ra expected that it would take about two years for Jang, the second-in-command, to be removed from the leadership position. It was not only Jang who was purged. Five out of seven officials who served as Kim Jong Il’s pallbearers in December 2011 would eventually be removed; the two who remain, Kim Yong Nam and Choe Tae Bok, don’t have any real authority…

Read more.

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