I wish I could argue that the shy and determined young man I first met that October day is the real person behind the cruel and mercurial dictator the rest of the world now knows him to be. But too much has happened since then.
In 1991, during a stint as a visiting professor in Moscow, I was approached by a South Korean agent. He brought me incredible news. He could arrange a meeting with my older sister, who had fled to the South during the Korean War and later moved to Chicago. Arranged by South Korea's national intelligence agency, it would be the first time we had seen each other in more than 40 years. All that time, we thought the other was dead. I was overcome with emotion. She begged me to come back to the United States with her and become a minister -- our mother's dying wish for me. Although I could not return with my sister, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Our joy was short-lived. Another agent who had allowed us to use his house as a meeting spot was, in fact, a double agent working for the North. I received instructions from the government to return home the very next day. But I knew very well I couldn't; I would be killed as a traitor. I anguished over what my failure to appear would mean for my family back in Pyongyang. It's bad enough for a soldier or a student to defect. But I knew intimate details of the ruling family's inner circles. Surely they would view my betrayal as a personal insult.
I never returned to North Korea, and I never saw my family again. A few years later, I heard from a well-placed South Korean minister that my family had been sent to a gulag and murdered, the innocent victims of my treasonous crime. To this day, I know nothing of the details of their deaths, or whether they blamed me as they perished.
I ache when I imagine what Kim Jong Il did to my family. So many times, I've imagined killing him and then killing myself. Countless days and nights I have pounded my chest with guilt and grief, unable to forgive myself for the ghastly fate that I have brought my beloved wife -- my lifelong companion -- our daughters and son, their spouses, and even our dear grandchildren.
But I am willing to let go of my painful grievance against Kim Jong Il. My only wish is that he opens North Korea's doors and lets the hungry, tired people enjoy the kind of freedom and abundance that South Koreans, Americans, and so many others do. Until then, I will let the rest of the world see what I've seen: a young, innocent boy who turned into a monster, and a country with so much promise transformed into a concentration camp.
SCHOOL'S OUT FOREVER
In September 1973, Kim Jong Il's daughter, Sul Song, was to enroll at Namsan Primary School. Surrounded by tall, green poplar trees where birds rested and sang, the school had the air of a natural park. Beyond the rear of the school's stadium atop Haebang Hill sat the mansions of the highest officials.
Its pastoral setting was reserved for children of the elite -- party officials above the rank of vice minister. They enjoyed all the perks that come with a rarefied spot in North Korean society: the best teachers, the best facilities, and just a few days of mandatory farm work every spring (as opposed to the average 60 to 90 days). Graduates of Namsan were guaranteed a spot at any university of their choice and an open door to a successful career. Isolated from the children of ordinary people, the students at Namsan would go on to become officials of the party and state.
Naturally, Kim Il Sung's children had studied at Namsan, including Kim Jong Il. Throughout his years there, Kim was a rather ordinary student. From academics and art to sports and extracurricular activities, he excelled in none. He made few friends. Upon graduation, Kim and his siblings all enrolled at Kim Il Sung University. His daughter's life was planned out much the same way -- until that September day.
The school's staff waited by the entrance gate with flower bouquets in hand. As the minutes passed and the bell rang, Sul Song failed to show up. The staff grew increasingly anxious. One hour later, the school received the following one-line notification from state authorities: "Kim Sul Song will not enroll in Namsan School." Disappointed, the teachers and staff, who had been preparing for Kim Sul Song's enrollment, were simply left to wonder if she would be studying abroad instead.
They didn't have much time to linger: That day also marked the enrollment of another important first-grader. He was none other than Kim Min Chul, the nephew of Kim Il Sung's second wife. I remember that day extremely well, for I had been selected to evaluate the 6-year-old child's aptitude for advanced education. That day, Kim Il Sung's mother-in-law came to see her beloved grandson begin his schooling. Several other relatives milled about, and the school bustled with the unusual presence of so many important people.
Kim Jong Il was incensed to know that his only daughter would be sharing the spotlight throughout her early education with a child from the "side branches," those relatives who lay outside the main family line. So, he had decided to hire a private tutor for his daughter rather than send her to Namsan. Withdrawing his daughter from the school was a public revelation of his hostility toward his extended family, but, on its own, it wouldn't eliminate those potential rivals to his own children. Which is why Kim Jong Il had his alma mater, where he had spent so much of his youth, blown up.