SEOUL // An account published online last week by a young woman who says she had a close personal relationship with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, reveals a wealth of information on - and new insights into - the life of the isolated country's reclusive head of state. According to the account by Mi Hyang, a former member of one of Mr Kim's "pleasure squads" - groups of attractive young women enlisted to provide entertainment and sexual services - the leader could be sentimental when drunk, and even shed tears.
His favourite delicacy contains the reproductive organ of sharks. He has a number of private residences around the capital city, some equipped with a 50-metre-long underground swimming pool. Mr Kim is known to be irascible towards his aides, but is surprisingly caring towards his private female attendants. He likes listening to Russian and Japanese music, but he is not a very good singer. He is good at hunting and often cooks the pheasants that he shoots.
Mi Hyang, who goes only by her first name, served in one of Mr Kim's pleasure squads for two years before fleeing to the South and defecting after her family was accused of treason, for reasons not yet revealed. She now resides in Seoul. The fate of her family has not been publicly disclosed. Her story was published on the well-known blog Nambuk Story, which literally means "the story of North and South Korea", in the form of an interview with the blog's owner, Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean who defected. The account published last week was the first installation in a series, of which six parts have been published.
"When I first met Kim Jong Il, he looked so normal … like a next-door neighbour. He has many brown spots on his face. His teeth were yellowish. My previous fancy about the great leader was shattered at that very moment," Mi Hyang says in the interview. "But he was very considerate towards me." Stories about life in North Korea by defectors are often published in the South, but Mi Hyang's one is unusual in that it deals directly and intimately with the life of Mr Kim. Few people have access to the leader.
Analysts say the account is a valuable source of information on Mr Kim. "I believe it's quite credible. There are also many new things about Kim Jong Il in her story that were not previously known," said Kim Sung-min, a former propaganda officer for the North Korean army and now the head of the Seoul-based Radio Free North Korea. The existence of Mr Kim's harems has long been known by South Korea's intelligence community.
According to Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, the young women in the pleasure squads are employees of the state whose work in many cases equates to other forms of mandatory service, such as military duty. "Unlike a capitalistic country, [pleasure squads] are managed on a state level," Mr Koh said. "They are not only for Kim Jong Il, but also for other senior cadre. They serve at official functions of the ruling class."
It is not known how many women work in this way for Mr Kim and the rulers, but various South Korean media estimate 2,000. Apart from sexual services, the women provide massages and dance and sing. Mi Hyang described how she was recruited. "I was 15 when two officers in their forties visited my school. They inspected all the female students and put aside some of them, including me, and made a detailed record of my family history and school record. I was asked whether I ever slept with a boy. I felt so ashamed to hear such a question.
"Those over 165cm [tall] are excluded because Kim Jong Il is short," she said, adding that the candidate's body should not have any scars or blemishes and their voice should be soft and feminine. They also undergo a thorough medical examination. Across the country, 30 to 40 students are chosen annually as final candidates, including 15 males who serve as farmhands or household servants to Mr Kim. The new recruits undergo six months of training before they are "interviewed" by Mr Kim, who then decides whether he likes them. If they are chosen they can serve him until the age of 25, when they retire from duty. Before Mi Hyang met Mr Kim, she was required to write a pledge of allegiance with blood from her finger vowing to "To serve loyally".
During their service to Mr Kim, which usually lasts 10 years, servants are not allowed to contact their families. Mi Hyang's service was cut short when her family was accused of treason and ordered to be executed. Mr Kim, she said, instructed that she not be killed. "I was told that he gave an order not to kill me. Perhaps, I owe him my life," Mi Hyang said. Shortly after that she fled. Mi Hyang said she never slept with Mr Kim. She also said he gave her a new name. "He said my original name sounded like a countryside girl and gave me a new name, 'Mi Hyang', which has since been registered in all my official records."
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst on North Korea at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, said Mi Hyang's testimony enabled South Koreans to take a sober look at the North's pleasure squads, which are often sensationalised in southern media. As of yesterday, 7.8 million people had visited the Nambuk blog where Mi Hyang's story is told. Attempting to defect is usually punished by death in North Korea, as authorities there fear defectors could divulge secrets about the Dear Leader, and southern officials say it is possible Mi Hyang is being monitored.
The blog's owner, Mr Joo, said he and Mi Hyang were advised by South Korean authorities against publishing the story, saying it would be difficult to guarantee the pair's safety. "We receive death threats all the time," Mr Joo said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org