Just a few weeks after Jang Song-Thaek was purged and executed in North Korea, rumors are emerging that Jang’s wife Kim Kyong-Hui is dead – either from a heart attack or by her own hand. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo writes that according to a local media outlet, “the North Korean leader’s only aunt is believed to have either committed suicide or died.” Another Chosun Ilbo report cited a South Korean government source who said that the South’s intelligence services “believe Kim is dead but have not been able to confirm this.”
Kim Kyong-Hui was last seen in public with Kim Jong-Un and his wife Ri Sol-Ju at a musical performance in early September, prompting speculation that her health had deteriorated significantly. When Jang was executed, North Korea watchers wondered if Kim Jong-Un was exacting retribution against his uncle not for subversive behavior, but for mistreating his aunt (ostensibly by engaging in adultery). Indeed, Kim Jong-Il had ordered Jang to undertake harsh factory work in the name of “ideological education” for mistreating Kim Kyong-Hui in the late 1970s. Kim was thus suspected to have lobbied her nephew, who wanted to consolidate power away from any alternative nexus, to execute his uncle.
Kim Kyong-Hui’s name ebbs and flows in North Korean news. She remained a prominent and powerful figure in North Korean politics as Kim Il-Sung’s daughter, Kim Jong-Il’s sister, and Kim Jong-Un’s aunt. Administratively, she is a four-star army general and secretary of the Worker’s Party. She was married to Jang Song-Thaek – a marriage that was partially responsible for Jang catapulting to the highest positions within the North Korean regime, including the vice chairmanship of the National Defense Commission (NDC). Kim, then in better health, and Jang regularly appeared together with Kim Jong-Il during his public appearances. Most recently, Kim’s name was circulated after her husband was executed, with speculation about her ambiguous role in the whole Jang affair.
The Chosun Ilbo elaborated on Kim’s health problems, citing a South Korean government official who said that “it is clear that Kim Kyong-Hui received medical treatment on her toe and there are rumors that she was also treated for heart problems or dementia.” Kim Kyong-Hui was known to have been treated for heart disease, cancer, dementia, and alcoholism intermittently over the past 30 years.
At this point, the rumors of Kim Kyong-Hui’s death are just that – rumors. The flow of information out of the Hermit Kingdom remains precarious, but one must recall that Jang Song-Thaek’s ouster was first reported via the rumor mill only to be later confirmed when KCNA issued a press release on the execution of the “thrice-cursed traitor.” In Kim Kyong-Hui’s case, there are reasons to be skeptical. One wonders why the regime would hush the death of a Kim blood relative, particularly Kim Il-Sung’s daughter. Kim Kyong-Hui is by no means peripheral to the Kim family mythos in North Korea and her passing would entail massive national pomp and circumstance. If Kim is truly dead, the regime’s silence could indicate that she had been on the chopping block all along – instead of purging his aunt, Kim Jong-Un may have decided to wait her health out.
Whatever the truth, The Diplomat will be watching the situation closely, with updates to come.