Who was Ko Yong Hui, the mother of Kim Jong Un? Our story begins some years ago. The 1970s and 80s were an unusual era for women in the DPRK. It was a time where they did not feature at all in the country’s politics. It was a time of political transition; the country’s politics was evolving. Shifting away from Marxism-Leninism, the scope of how we understand the DPRK was being created, with the country’s unique personality politics placing new emphasis on Kim Il Sung, in addition to his son Kim Jong Il as the designated successor. This changing emphasis saw an increased marginalization of female figures in the country. In 1974, Kim the elder’s second life, Kim Song Ae, was purged and had her title of “first lady of the DPRK revoked” for an unspecified reason. Although unharmed, she would be effectively erased from record. It marked the beginning of an impasse and obscurity for women in public life which would persist until the late 20th century, by which then Kim Jong-Suk rose to prominence as the “mother of songun Korea”.
With women’s roles reduced, little would be disclosed about the martial life of Kim Jong il. He married at least twice, yet his spouses did not feature in official state media in the way we see Kim Jong Un and his wife today. This marks the political context by which Ko Yong Hui, the latter Kim’s mother, would come into being. Ko Yong Hui’s life for a North Korean was somewhat extraordinary. She was not born in the DPRK, but she was in fact born in Japan to a Korean father and an ethnic Japanese mother. Her father had worked as a Labourer in Osaka, which was common at the time given the Japanese Empire had utilized Korean labour in its industry, Japan had an enormous ethnic Korean community. He worked in a sewing factory which in fact produced gear for the Imperial Japanese Army. In 1952, several years after the war was over, Ko was born.
It was in this decade following the end of World War II and thus the Korean War likewise, that the DPRK contacted a campaign encouraging ethnic Koreans in Japan to migrate to their country. It was an elaborate campaign, and without knowledge or comprehension of what life in North Korea was like, many signed up for it. Ko’s family were amongst the volunteers. They would however, live in Pyongyang. Ko grew up to become a dancer and performer. She joined the Mansudae Art Troupee in the 1970s. Not long after this, she would meet the DPRK leader to be, Kim Jong Il. Details of their relationship are obscure and of course, not available. But seemingly, it was a courtship which lasted a few years. She would give birth to Kim Jong un in 1983 and then 4 years later, Kim Yo Yong, the sister whom is now gaining prominence in DPRK politics.
What happened between this time and the present is also patchy. The young Kim would be schooled in Switzerland and would live with Ko’s sister. Whilst looking after Kim, she would defect to the United States. She now owns a laundry in New York City. Ko herself would pass away, reportedly from cancer, in the early 2000s, missing her son’s ascension to power. However, oddly enough, as Kim Jong Un began to feature in North Korean politics, Ko’s legacy would also make a surprise emergence around the year 2008. To support Kim’s position, she would be referenced as “the great mother” or similar to Kim Jong Suk, “the mother of Songun Korea”. Yet these attempts of glorification would vanish as quickly as they started. Her background having been from Japan, was politically problematic. She returned to obscurity.
Thus marks the life of Ko Yong Hui, whom largely lived during a time where women were marginal in North Korean politics. It is a life and legacy largely spent in secrecy, yet one at the same time of great significance. However, we want to celebrate the role of women in the DPRK and around the world. That’s why Young Pioneer Tours are running a delegation to North Korea on international women’s day! Join now, help support the cause and further explore the history of women in this country!