One Kim to Rule them All?

Following his criticism from Kim Jong-il in the autumn of 1992, Kang Sok-ju received orders to undergo revolutionary instruction. He spent one month cleaning manure on a pig farm outside the city before being recalled to Pyongyang by Kim Jong-il a month later. The Italian ambassador and his travelling party had arrived in the DPRK shortly after Kang’s return. Moreover, Kang’s relationship with Kim Jong-il was certainly not very good at the time. It was then that Kim instructed Kang to mobilize the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Wangjaesan Light Music Band and arrange performances from them. The two bands brought Kim Jong-il a great deal of joy. This gave Kang the opportunity to demonstrate once more his loyalty to the regime.

Kang placed European Bureau chief Kim Heung-rim the responsibility of guiding the Italian delegation. Choe Son-hee and I were selected to work as the interpreters. Choe translated for the ambassador’s wife, while I translated for the Ambassador Rossi and the director. Choe has been seen fairly frequently on South Korean television and became somewhat famous. She is now in charge of Foreign Ministry’s relations with the United States.

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Choe Son-hui, N.K. diplomat on U.S. affairs

The day before the Italian delegation arrived, Kang held a meeting in his office. There, he gave Kim Heung-rim and me the following instructions:

“You must be well aware of the great interest that both the Supreme Leader and Kim Jong-il have in the successful completion of this project. To cut a long story short, I will have to provide regular reports to our comrade leaders on the Italian ambassador and his delegation. The Supreme Leader and Kim Jong-il will also want detailed information about each specific member of the travelling party. This will include, immediately after their arrival here, information on their taste, hobbies, and familial relationships. It is also possible that our leader will request that Jon Hee-jeong at the Foreign Ministry also be kept up-to-speed with the delegation’s movements. However if you report anything to the Supreme Leader before reporting it to Kim Jong-il, there will be big trouble. Don’t forget this. The internal reporting orders of the Foreign Ministry require reports be first made to Kim Jong-il before they reach the Supreme Leader. Keep this in mind at all times.”

I knew that since the late 1980s all information was to be first reported to Kim Jong-il, however hearing it here now still struck me as somewhat surprising. From Pyongyang Airport to the Koryo Hotel it is about a 30 minute car ride. I travelled with the foreign delegation and travelling party and spent this time getting to know them and using various techniques to ascertain their personal information. Ambassador Rossi and his wife spoke in Italian during the trip. Whilst I could not possibly understand what they were saying, I did detect that his wife was perhaps not fluent in Italian. I therefore asked the wife where she was born in Italy. She replied that wasn’t Italian but Egyptian. She also told me that she was a cousin of the then Secretary of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

When we arrived at the Koryo Hotel and went through the formalities of checking-in, I had the opportunity to talk with Foreign Ministry director Mario Filippo Pini. During this, it struck me that he possibly understood Korean. When I asked him if he could speak Korea, he replied that he knew a little of the language. I then continued and asked him where he had learned Korean and discovered that his wife was Korean and thus he had picked up bits and pieces of the language.

“Your visit to the DPRK must be known by quite a few people. You must have a good relationship with the South Korean Embassy in Rome…?” I asked him.

“I’m married to a Korean, yes. But in terms of politics regarding the Korean Peninsula we treat both the North and South equally. Before we came to Pyongyang, I met with the South Korean Ambassador to Rome. He asked about the purpose of our visit here and to share the results of our trip with him when we return.”

I then asked him the name of the South Korean ambassador based in Italy. He told me it was Lee Ki-joo. While talking to him, however, the hotel receptionist was making rather a large deal about wanting me to take a phone call. Jon Hee-jeong was waiting for me on the line. When told once more that I was not to report to Kim Il-sung, I evaded the situation by declaring that it was time for me to take the delegation to their rooms. And then I would report all the necessary information regarding the travelling party to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

After my report had been confirmed as having been received by Kim Jong-il, I received a phone call from Jon Hee-jeong. Jon had always had a very calm personality and never raised his voice to anyone. However as soon as I picked up the phone, I was greeted by a very agitated, loud, and frustrated voice.

“What is your name and title? Why didn’t you pick up the phone? When did you join the Foreign Ministry? Do you know how much of a hard time the Supreme Leader is giving me waiting for the report?”

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Secretary of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Of course he too must have known that all internal reports were to go to Kim Jong-il first. However with Kim Il-sung breathing down his neck, it was no surprise that he was both frustrated and angry. “Sorry” I replied. “I didn’t realize there was a phone call and was busy securing the rooms for the travelling Italian delegation.” Later, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were both pleased to discover that one of the travelling party’s wives was the cousin of the United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Ghali was known to possess quite prominent anti-American sentiments. Both father and son felt affronted about something: the fact that the Foreign Ministry director Mario Filippo Pini’s wife was Korean.

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