The singer, the X-rated movies and the dictator: Kim Jong-un's former lover ‘executed by machine-gun for appearing in porn films’

A member of a North Korean pop group and erstwhile companion of the country's leader has reportedly been killed by machine gun

She was first identified as Kim Jong-un’s old flame 13 months ago, in July 2012. The poised, coiffed and elegantly dressed companion of the North Korean dictator of Kim Jong-un was filmed sitting next to him at a concert in Pyongyang, then ascending the stage with him to applaud the performers. One month later, however, she vanished from the scene as abruptly as she had arrived. And today came the shocking news that Hyon Song-wol, one of the reclusive state’s most popular singers, had been executed by machine gun.

Eleven other members of her pop group were reportedly executed with her earlier this month, accused of filming themselves having sex with each other then selling the videos.

Other musicians linked to the 12 who allegedly died were forced to watch the grisly killings, then sent to labour camps, victims of the reclusive regime’s policy of collective punishment. South Korean Pyongyang watchers had named Ms Hyon as Kim’s girlfriend when he was a teenager. His father, Kim Jong-il, was said to have disapproved of the relationship and forced his son to break it off. The fresh encounter with his sweetheart was interpreted as evidence that the youngest Kim was shaking off his father’s influence and taking his own decisions. 

Whether the woman photographed with the young leader really was the singing star has never been clarified. A fortnight later, when Kim was photographed with another young woman on his arm at the opening of a Pyongyang amusement park, North Korea’s official media pointedly identified her as “his wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju” – a woman who had performed with the same group as Hyon Song-wol. 

This terse announcement was a revolution in North Korean terms, where until now the private lives of the rulers had been kept strictly secret.

Hyon Song-wol’s patriotic hits included “Footsteps of Soldiers”, “I Love Pyongyang”, “She is a Discharged Soldier”, “We Are Troops of the Party”, and “Excellent Horse-like Lady”.

Why she and her fellow musicians should have been reduced to selling videos of themselves having sex, and why this severely proscribed activity should have been punished in such a cruel and public fashion, remains a mystery. 

Chosun Ilbo, the respected South Korean daily with sales of over two million, reported that Hyon Song-wol and her colleagues had been arrested on 17 August for breaking pornography laws. Their public execution took place three days later, with other members of North Korea’s most famous pop groups force to watch before being dispatched to prison camps, from which few prisoners return.

The severity of the punishment indicated that there was a political dimension to the case, according to one Japanese authority on North Korean affairs. Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura of Waseda University in Tokyo told The Daily Telegraph, “If these people had only made pornographic videos, then it is simply not believable that their punishment was execution. They could have been made to disappear into the prison system instead.”

Such a hideous fate could only be explained if the singer and her comrades had been identified with a rival power faction in Pyongyang, the professor went on. An alternative explanation was that the elegant Hyon Song-wol, so publicly identified with Kim Jong-un, had attracted the jealous ire of Kim’s wife. 

“There is a political reason behind this,” he said. “Or, as Kim’s wife once belonged to the same group, it is possible that these executions are more about Kim’s wife.”

Reports of the execution clashed strangely with news that not only is Pyongyang busy mending the bridges with the South that it had deliberately blown up earlier this year, but that it is also hoping to open the country to an unprecedented wave of foreign tourists.

In April, reacting furiously to the annual military exercises staged by the US and South Korea, the North Koreans pulled their 53,000-strong workforce from the Kaesong industrial complex where around 100 South Korean firms had been producing textiles and electronic goods with North Korean labour since 2004. A dry run for an intended gradual rapprochement between the two countries, Kaesong remained unique and dependent on subsidies from Seoul, which provided the electricity and water the plants required, and two square meals a day for the workers. Of the $140 paid per worker per month, the Pyongyang regime took a large chunk.

Despite obtaining no concessions from the South from its torrent of threats and menaces, Pyongyang has now, after seven rounds of talks with the South, agreed to reopen the complex. It has also agreed to resume the temporary reunions of families separated by the division of the peninsula ever since the end of the Korean War, after a suspension lasting three years, and to once again allow holidaymakers from the South to visit the resort of Mt Kumgang, which is barred to ordinary North Koreans. Visits to the area were abruptly cancelled in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist on the beach.

More ambitious are the efforts announced this week to attract tourists from much farther afield. Announcing plans for flights to Pyongyang from China, South-east Asia and Europe, North Korea’s tourism tsar, Jo Song-gyu, told the state news agency, “Abundant in tourism resources, [North Korea] has a bright future to develop tourism.” He added that hotels were being refurbished to international standards, and duty-free shops and fitness centres were being constructed.

Until now the small numbers of Western tourists coming to the country have been closely watched and rigidly controlled to prevent them having unrehearsed encounters with ordinary North Koreans. If Pyongyang is now contemplating accepting much larger numbers – inherently harder to control – the nation’s need for hard currency must be getting desperate.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager - Vehicle Design and Build

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Engineering Project Manager ...

Recruitment Genius: Network Support Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer and i...

Recruitment Genius: Document Controller

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Document Controller is required to join a le...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action