The ebbs and flows of former N. Korean first lady Kim Song Ae

All narratives about the Kim dynasty in North Korea only focus on its four most infamous members, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Suk, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Another, once quite influential figure, however, has long vanished from stories and books dealing with the Kim family: Kim Song Ae, Kim Il-Sung’s third wife and former first lady of North Korea.

As only one central source about Kim Song Ae exists  – a memoir titled “Blood in the Taedong River: Memoirs of a Military Political Officer” – not much is known about her early years. This particular book was written by Kim Soo Bong, once a high-ranking officer in the North Korean army until he was overthrown in 1959 and fled to China the following decade.

According to the memoir, Kim Song Ae’s father worked as personal secretary to Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s leader at the time, during the Korean War. The certain closeness between the two soon evolved into a relationship and shortly thereafter, Kim Song Ae fell pregnant with Kim Il Sung’s child. 

As a result, Kim Il Sung married Kim Sung Ae – but kept it a secret for several years. It took him until 1958 to formally introduce Kim Sung Ae as his wife to North Korea’s high-ranking officials. A first public announcement was issued even later, on September 14, 1965. It was delivered by the state newspaper “Rodong Sinmun.” 


Following her accession to power as the chairwoman of the Korean Democratic Women’s Union (KDWU, now called the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, or SWUK) in the 1960s, Kim Sung Ae was considered a leading figure within the Kim family’s self-constructed personality cult. Throughout the following decade, the people of North Korea were instructed to “follow the teachings of the first lady, Kim Song Ae.”

Between 1970 and 1973, Kim Song Ae acquired several honorific titles – degrees with a very strong ceremonial significance in North Korea – which she carried as name suffixes. The KDWU’s popular magazine “Choson Nyosong” furthermore awarded her the title “Great Chairwoman.”

It’s safe to assume that Kim Song Ae had become a very powerful person in North Korea at this point. Nevertheless, as she was “only” considered to be the second most important member of the Kim dynasty, her personality cult manifested itself in fundamentally different ways than that of her husband Kim Il Sung. Books, for example, exclusively contained images of him and had only his name written in bold letters. Most importantly, however, was the fact that Kim Il Sung was recognized as the sole leader – of the Korean Women’s movement included.


Despite her political success, Kim Song Ae apparently faced some struggles in her personal life: she is said to have had a very poor relationship with Kim Jong Il, her stepson. 

In fact, Kim Jong Il reportedly seized several opportunities to crusade against his stepmother. In 1950, for instance, former Soviet diplomats recalled an incident in which an upset Kim Jong Il kicked and slapped his stepmother for scolding him.

Kim Jong Il’s ungracious thoughts of Kim Song Ae became even more apparent in 1973. At the time, he held a position in North Korea’s film-producing Propaganda and Agitation Department and as such, he published a movie titled “Problem in Our Family.” The film, which tells the story of an evil, homewrecking wife – presumably a direct reference to Kim Song Ae – displayed their personal conflict on the big screen. In addition, it conveyed one clear message of Kim Jong Il to his stepmother: she “mustn’t try to control and manipulate his father.” 

Kim Jong Il carried out two further side blows against his stepmother in 1974 when he demoted Kim Seong Kab and Kim Sung Ho, the first lady’s siblings, from their positions as a navy officer, and as South Hwanghae province’s party committee secretary, respectively.

Thus, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Kim Song Ae hoped her biological son Kim Pyong Il would inherit the position as North Korea’s leader. The country’s elites, on the other hand, had to make the difficult choice between supporting either Kim Jong Il or Kim Pyong Il. Leading lights of North Korea’s political elite, such as Nam Il and Choe Yong-gon supported Kim Pyong Il, while soldier-politician O Jin-u supported Kim Jong Il.


Kim Song Ae’s wish, however, would not be fulfilled. Kim Jong Il became increasingly prominent in North Korea’s political landscape and was eventually declared his father’s official successor in February 1974. As a result, Kim Song Ae’s reputation and influence deteriorated fast; to a point where the North Korean media outlets didn’t even address her with honorific titles anymore.

Kim Song Ae and Kim Il Sung stayed married nonetheless. Until her husband died in 1994, Kim Song Ae remained a member of the North Korean elite.

In the early 1980s, she once again became an influential political figure when she was re-appointed as a central committee member in the Supreme People’s Assembly in 1980. Two years later, in 1982, she was decorated with the “Order of Kim Il Sung,” the highest possible medal in North Korea. 

From 1986 on, however, Kim Song Ae gradually disappeared from the news. She made her last public appearance in June 1994 when US President Jimmy Carter came to visit North Korea.

Kim Il Sung died only a month later. For Kim Song Ae, his death meant both an abrupt end of her political career as well as instant social relegation: already at her husband’s funeral, she was listed 114th on the guest list (the rank and importance of North Korean officials is commonly reflected in the order they appear listed in publications at major events). 

Though it has never been officially confirmed, it is believed that Kim Song Ae lived in a villa in the countryside after her retirement from public life. She reportedly died in 2014. Meanwhile, educational books or records in North Korea don’t even mention Kim Song Ae and/or her marriage to Kim Il Sung anymore. It’s as if she has vanished from history without a trace.

*Translated by Brian Boyle and edited by Laura Geigenberger

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