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: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future