NEW YORK — Wandering through Times Square, past the Naked Cowboy and the Elmos and the ticket touts, she could be any immigrant trying to live the American Dream.
A 60-year-old Korean woman with a soft perm and conservative clothes, she’s taking a weekend off from pressing shirts and hemming pants at the dry-cleaning business she runs with her husband.
But she’s not just any immigrant. She’s an aunt to Kim Jong Un, the young North Korean leader who has threatened to wipe out New York with a hydrogen bomb.
And for the past 18 years, since defecting from North Korea into the waiting arms of the CIA, she has been living an anonymous life here in the United States with her husband and three children.
“My friends here tell me I’m so lucky, that I have everything,” Ko Yong Suk, as she was known when she was part of North Korea’s royal family, told The Washington Post on a recent weekend. “My kids went to great schools and they’re successful, and I have my husband, who can fix anything. There’s nothing we can envy.”
Her husband, previously known as Ri Gang, chimes in with laughter: “I think we have achieved the American Dream.”
This is the story of how one family went from the top of North Korea to middle America.
Breaking their silence in the United States, Ko and Ri spent almost 20 hours talking to two Washington Post reporters in New York City and then at their home several hours’ drive away. They were nervous about emerging from their anonymity; after all, there are Americans who analyze North Korea for a living and do not even know that the couple are here.
They asked The Post not to publish the names they use in the United States or to reveal where they live, mainly to protect their grown children, who live normal professional lives.
Ko bears a striking resemblance to her sister, Ko Yong Hui, who was one of Kim Jong Il’s wives and the mother of Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader of North Korea. And she had a particularly close relationship with the man now considered one of the United States’ top enemies: She took care of Kim Jong Un while he was at school in Switzerland.
But in 1998, when Kim Jong Un was 14 and older brother Kim Jong Chol was 17, Ko and Ri decided to defect. Ko’s sister, their link to the regime, was sick with terminal breast cancer — although she did not die until 2004 — and the boys were getting older. The couple apparently realized that they would not be needed by the regime much longer and fled, concerned about losing their privileged status.
The Kim family has ruled North Korea for 70 years, through a repressive system built on patronage and fear. The royal family and top cadres in the Workers’ Party benefit from this system — and have the most to lose if it collapses or if they run afoul of the regime.
So the couple decided to flee — not to South Korea, as many North Koreans do, but to the United States.
They have worked long hours running their dry-cleaning store, and their three children have come of age here, going to good colleges and getting good jobs.
The family home is a large, two-story house with two cars in the driveway, a huge TV in the living room, a grill on a rear deck. They’ve been to Las Vegas on vacation, and two years ago went to South Korea, where Ko enjoyed visiting the palaces she had seen in TV dramas.
They look like a normal family.
But look closer. That photo of her eldest son on a jet-ski? It’s at Wonsan, where the Kim family has its summer residence. That girl in the photo album? It’s Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, who runs the propaganda division of the Workers’ Party.
And the house? It was bought partly with a one-time payment of $200,000 that the CIA gave the couple on their arrival, they said.
Even though Ko and Ri have not seen Kim Jong Un in almost 20 years and do not appear to have held official positions, U.S. intelligence on North Korea is so thin that this couple still represents a valuable source of information on the family court.
They can reveal, for example, that Kim Jong Un was born in 1984 — not 1982 or 1983, as has been widely thought. The reason they’re certain? It was the same year that their first son was born. “He and my son were playmates from birth. I changed both of their diapers,” Ko said with a laugh.
Sometimes, operatives from the CIA’s national clandestine service come to town to show Ko and Ri photos of North Koreans and ask who the people are.
The CIA declined to confirm or comment on any of Ko and Ri’s claims. Some parts of the couple’s history can be verified, but other parts cannot or seem incomplete.
Even today, Ri in particular is sympathetic toward the North Korean regime and is trying to get approval to visit Pyongyang. And both are careful in what they say about their nephew, to whom they refer as “Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
But what they will say about their former charge paints a picture of a man who was raised knowing that he would one day be king.
In 1992, Ko Yong Suk arrived in Bern, Switzerland, with Kim Jong Chol, the first son of Ko’s sister and Kim Jong Il, who in two years would become the leader of North Korea. Kim Jong Un arrived in 1996, when he was 12.
“We lived in a normal house and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother,” Ko said about her time in Bern. “I encouraged him to bring his friends home, because we wanted them to live a normal life. I made snacks for the kids. They ate cake and played with Legos.”
Traveling on a diplomatic passport, Ri went back and forth between North Korea and Switzerland, sometimes ferrying their youngest daughter and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister back and forth.
The family spoke Korean at home and ate Korean food but also enjoyed the benefits of an expatriate family in an exotic locale. Ko took the Kim children to Euro Disney, now Disneyland Paris. Kim Jong Un had been to Tokyo Disneyland with his mother some years before — and her photo albums are full of pictures of them skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming on the French Riviera, eating at al fresco restaurants in Italy.
Kim Jong Un loved games and machinery, trying to figure out how ships float and planes fly. He was already showing personality traits that would later become much more evident.
“He wasn’t a troublemaker, but he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance,” Ko recalled. “When his mother tried to tell him off for playing with these things too much and not studying enough, he wouldn’t talk back, but he would protest in other ways, like going on a hunger strike.”
Kim loved going home for the summer, spending time in Wonsan, where the family has a huge beachfront compound, or at their main residence in Pyongyang, with its movie theater and plenty of room to hang out.
“He started playing basketball, and he became obsessed with it,” his aunt said of the young Kim, who was a Michael Jordan fan and later hosted basketball player Dennis Rodman as a guest several times in North Korea. “He used to sleep . . . with his basketball.”
He was shorter than his friends, and his mother told him that if he played basketball, he would become taller, Ko said.
Later, at their house, Ri produced a never-publicly seen photo, laminated and stored in an envelope, of a slightly built Kim, aged 13, and his older brother among a team wearing basketball uniforms after a tournament in Pyongyang. Ri is sitting in the front row, while Ko is standing in the back. Kim is holding a gold trophy.
The world did not know that Kim had been anointed his father’s successor until October 2010, when his status was made official at a Workers’ Party conference in Pyongyang. But Kim had known since 1992 that he would one day inherit North Korea.
The signal was sent at his eighth birthday party, attended by North Korea’s top brass, the couple said. Kim was given a general’s uniform decorated with stars, and real generals with real stars bowed to him and paid their respects to him from that moment on.
“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said.
From a humble background, Ko was catapulted into the top echelons of North Korean society when her sister, a performer, caught the eye of the princeling Kim Jong Il, and she became his third partner in 1975.
“I was very close to my sister, and it was a tough job to be the wife, so she asked me to help her. She could trust me because I was her own blood,” Ko said.
Kim Jong Il personally selected Ri to marry his sister-in-law. They all lived in a compound in Pyongyang, with Ko looking after her sister’s and her own children for several years.
“We lived the good life,” Ko said. Over a sushi lunch in New York, she reminisced about drinking cognac with sparkling water and eating caviar in Pyongyang, about riding with Kim Jong Il in his Mercedes-Benz.
Then came the charmed years in Europe. But in 1998, Ko’s sister discovered she had breast cancer and underwent treatment in Switzerland and France.
This is where Ko and Ri’s version of events starts to become opaque. Given that Ri is trying to get back into Kim Jong Un’s good graces, he has reason to present their defection as nothing but altruistic.
The way Ri and Ko tell it, the cancer treatment in Europe was not working, so they decided they should travel to the United States to try to secure treatment for Ko’s dying sister. Their defection was all about trying to save Kim Jong Un’s mother, they say.
Stories about the couple in the South Korean news media have suggested that they sought asylum in the United States because they were concerned about what could happen to them after either of Kim Jong Un’s parents died. This was their link to the royal family, and without that link, what would happen to them?
Walking through Central Park on a Sunday morning, Ko seemed to imply that this was a concern.
“In history, you often see people close to a powerful leader getting into unintended trouble because of other people,” she said. “I thought it would be better if we stayed out of that kind of trouble.”
They had reason to be scared, given Ko’s sister’s position, said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website.
“Ko Yong Hui was an ambitious woman — she wanted her sons to be promoted, and she made enemies in the process,” Madden said. “If you were her sister or her brother-in-law, you would feel threatened. Someone could easily make you disappear.”
Just look at the case of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle who also lived in the Pyongyang compound with Ko and Ri. He apparently built up too much power. In 2013, Kim had him executed.
So one day in 1998, Ri and Ko and their three children took a taxi to the U.S. Embassy in Bern. They said they were North Korean diplomats and wanted asylum. After several days, during which time a Korean speaker flew in from Washington, they were taken to a U.S. military base near Frankfurt.
They stayed in a house on the base for several months while they were questioned. Then Ri and Ko disclosed their family connections.
“The American government didn’t know who Kim Jong Un was, that he would become the leader,” Ri said.
The U.S. government did not tell its ally South Korea that it had Ko and Ri until they were on American soil, apparently infuriating the government in Seoul.
For U.S. intelligence agencies, which struggle to get reliable information about the inner workings of the North Korean regime, the defection must have seemed like hitting the intelligence jackpot.
But Ri insists they did not know much. “They thought we must know some secrets, but we didn’t know anything,” he said. “We were just looking after the children and helping them study, so of course we saw a lot of their private lives, but we had nothing to do with defense. We didn’t know any nuclear or military secrets.”
Madden said the pair would have had limited intelligence value. Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korean leadership expert who once studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, agreed.
“Yes, they understand the system very well,” he said. However, “they missed the famine and the recovery, the transition to the new leadership, and all the events of the last five years. In that sense, they’re living in the past.”
When they landed in the United States, the family spent a few days in the Washington area — not far from the CIA — before moving to a small city where a South Korean church had offered to help them, as it did for others who escaped the North.
“The people at the church kept asking us questions. They knew we were from North Korea, but they told us we didn’t look like North Koreans. They kept asking us questions,” Ko said.
So the family moved to a different city with very few other Koreans, or even other Asians.
“Life was hard at the beginning. We had no relatives, and we were working for 12 hours every day,” Ri said. He worked as a builder, then did maintenance in an apartment house, jobs that were easy to do without English.
Ko was frustrated at not being able to work and contribute. “The only thing I could do without speaking the language was dry cleaning,” she said in Korean. Ri speaks reasonable English today, but Ko’s is still basic.
So they opened a small store and began working long hours, Ri at the machines and Ko doing alterations. They soon hit their stride. “Seeing my kids doing well in school and my husband working so hard gave me the strength and energy to carry on,” Ko said.
Their children have no interest in Korea, North or South, she said.
They have a comfortable existence but certainly do not appear to be living large. Stopping at a gas station for lunch on the way back to their home, Ko remarked that bottled water was very cheap and was disappointed that the Dunkin’ Donuts was out of burritos.
So why are they breaking their silence now?
Ri says he wants to visit North Korea and has come out of their deep cover to dispel what he calls “lies” being peddled about them and their family in North Korea by regime critics in South Korea.
Last year, Ri and Ko moved to sue three high-level North Korean defectors who had been on South Korean television accusing them of a variety of activities including having plastic surgery and stealing millions of dollars from the Kim regime. The couple hired a celebrity lawyer, Kang Yong-seok, to pursue a defamation case, but it was thrown out on a technicality. Kang arranged for The Washington Post to meet the couple and was present for most of the interviews in New York.
Even after the years the couple has spent in the United States, North Korea still has some pull.
Ri, who is particularly careful around reporters not to speak ill of the regime, is positioning himself as the person to bridge the widening gap between Washington and Pyongyang.
“My ultimate goal is to go back to North Korea. I understand America and I understand North Korea, so I think I can be a negotiator between the two,” he said. “If Kim Jong Un is how I remembered he used to be, I would be able to meet him and talk to him.”
Mansourov described Ri’s hopes to return to North Korea as “ridiculous.”
“He has a nice life in the U.S. Why would he want to go back? Unless he’s ready to ‘go upstairs,’ ” he said.
Ko said she misses her home town — the pull of the home town cannot be underestimated in Korean culture — but does not want to go back. Nor does she want Ri to visit. “But how can I change my stubborn husband’s mind?”
Luckily for Ko, that decision is Kim Jong Un’s. And he’s not showing any interest in having an intermediary anytime soon to help him improve relations with the United States.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.