North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has threatened Seoul with destruction by fire, but as a remote cemetery on a resort island shows, he has closer ties to the South than he cares to admit.
In a cemetery in a hard-to-find corner of Jeju Island, South Korea, there are 13 tombstones bearing the surname Ko – Kim’s parents through his mother, Ko Yong Hui .
Jong Un is the third member of the Kim family to rule North Korea, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather – what official hagiography calls the “Paektu lineage”.
But the Jeju tombs tell a bigger story.
Kim’s mother was born in Osaka in 1952 to an islander from Jeju who emigrated to Japan in 1929, when the Korean Peninsula was under colonial rule by Tokyo.
Many of his family members, including Kim’s maternal great-grandfather, are buried in Jeju, their overgrown graves contrasting sharply with the Kumsusan Sun Palace in Pyongyang, where the embalmed bodies of the father and grandfather rest. Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung.
After Kim came to power in 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, many experts pointed to his mother’s South Korean and Japanese heritage. Pyongyang has never confirmed this.
The regime “must have feared that the confirmation would undermine its legitimacy,” Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies told TNZT.
The Kim dynasty bases its claim to power on Kim Il Sung’s role as a guerrilla fighter driving out Japan and gaining independence from Korea in 1945.
“The Korea-Japan heritage goes directly against the North Korean myth of its leadership,” Cheong said.
– Kim’s mother –
Kim’s mother grew up in the Japanese port city of Osaka, but her family moved to North Korea in the 1960s as part of a decades-long repatriation program through Pyongyang.
The program has urged ethnic Koreans living in Japan to move to North Korea, as part of a campaign to “claim supremacy” over the South, said Tokyo-based novelist and columnist Park Chul-hyun .
“The North viewed the Korean-Japanese community as a strategic battleground,” he said, and managed to convince nearly 100,000 ethnic Koreans to settle in the “socialist paradise.”
The Ko family answered the call and lived a relatively normal life in the North until their eldest daughter came to the attention of the country’s heir apparent.
Experts believe Ko, who was a performer in the Mansudae art troupe of musicians and dancers, first met Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 1972.
She would become his partner in 1975, experts say, and although there is no official record of their marriage, the couple had three children. She died in 2004.
“There hasn’t been anything about Ko Yong Hui in the official media,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident member of the 38 North program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
There is not much in the state media about Kim Jong Un’s background and legacy, beyond attempts to show that he is the rightful heir to the legacy of Mount Paektu, she added.
– Empty grave –
South Korean media discovered the Ko family graves in Jeju in 2014 – one of the first real confirmations of Kim Jong Un’s South Korean ancestry.
At that time, there was a plaque – known as the “Empty Grave” in the South – honoring Kim’s maternal grandfather, Ko Gyong Taek, even though he died and was buried in the North.
“Born in 1913 and moved to Japan in 1929. He died in 1999,” the plaque reads, a custom that allows family members to perform ancestor rites even if the body is not not here.
The plaque was not there when TNZT visited the Jeju cemetery in April 2022.
She had been abducted by a distant relative of Kim Jong Un, shocked by the media attention and fearing the tomb would be vandalized, reports the daily Chosun Ilbo.
He said his family “knew nothing about the relationship with Kim Jong Un”, prior to the media discovery, according to the report.