Wife deserts North Korea's 'Dear Leader'

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For Kim Jong Il, the reclusive "Dear Leader" of Stalinist North Korea, life has recently been very cruel. Since the death of his father, the founding "Great Leader", Kim Il Sung, in 1994, his country has suffered disaster after disaster, including floods, food shortages, defections and chronic recession.

Now comes a very personal blow. If South Korean newspapers and government officials are to be believed, his wife - or one of his wives - has left him.

According to the Seoul newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Sung Hye Rim, the first wife of Kim and the mother of his eldest son, has vanished in Switzerland, and may be about to defect to the West. Ms Sung, 59, had been living in Moscow where she was being treated for an unspecified illness. Last month she was staying in a villa in Switzerland with her sister, Sung Hye Rang, her niece, and a bodyguard. According to the paper, all four disappeared some time last month and may be seeking political asylum in the West.

The Agency for National Security Planning (NSP), South Korea's version of the CIA, yesterday confirmed the disappearances, and revealed for the first time that Lee Han Young, Ms Sung's nephew, had earlier defected to Seoul in 1992. "Any further remarks about the incident would be improper," the NSP insisted. "We are afraid that the premature newspaper report may endanger the sisters."

Very few hard facts are known about the Dear Leader and his family but Kim lore, largely the work of South Korean propagandists, makes much of his legendary sexual appetites. According to biographies published in Seoul, Sung Hye Rim was a movie star "violated" by Kim, a keen cineaste, in the late 1960s or early 1970s. She fathered his eldest son, Kim Jung Nam, now aged 26. Their marriage appears never to have been formally ended, although the Dear Leader took at least two other wives. In the closed world of the North Korean Communist Party, Dear First Ladies have never enjoyed the status accorded to them in the West.

If true, the flight of the Sungs would be the most spectacular of a series of defections to have taken place since the death of Kim Il Sung. In Seoul yesterday the latest refugees were paraded before journalists by the NSP: three diplomatic workers who absconded from the North Korean embassy in Zambia at the end of last year.

"The North may seem politically stable, but when you get inside, it's not so simple," said Hyun Sung Il, a third secretary, who followed his wife into exile at the start of the year. "There are anonymous leaflets and letters criticising the party. There are groups formed trying to push those demands." The dire state of North Korea's economy has forced its diplomats to come up with some ingenious money-making schemes: according to Hyun, the Luanda embassy has smuggled ivory and rhino horns and hired out official vehicles to earn hard currency.