The Tragedy of Hyon Song Wol

Now I’d like to take a step aside from current events and revisit the unfortunate story of Hyon Song Wol, the ex-girlfriend of Kim Jong Un. Subject of rumor and political persecution, she is one example of genuine talent snuffed out by the general meanness of humanity.

From 1993 to 1998, Jong Un studied English in Switzerland, leaving when he was 15 years old. By my estimation he probably started dating Song Wol (formerly Han Song Wol) when they were both 19, around 2002. She had been lead singer for Ponchonbo Electronic Ensemble throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s. That is, most sources say she fronted Ponchonbo Electronic Ensemble, but some sources place her with Unhasu Orchestra and at least one stated she toured with Wanjaesan Light Music Band. It’s really hard to get clear, definite information on this point.

They began dating, but as happens so often in the Kim dynasty, this relationship was disapproved of by his father and Jong Un was forbidden from seeing her any further.

The reason? This was back in 2002, five years after Jong Il assumed power from his own father, and he was embarrassed by his other two sons: Kim Jong Chol was considered too effeminate to lead the DPRK, and Kim Jong Nam tried to sneak his family to Tokyo Disneyland in 2001. Both of them were far too enamored of the western world, whereas Jong Un had been drama-free and obedient up to this point. Jong Il had to consider what the future leader was going to look like, and even though Song Wol was absolutely loyal to the state and had written several patriotic hits, she was still just a pop singer in his eyes. (Considering his own mistresses were an actress and a singer, this makes him look like a hypocrite.)

With Ponchonbo Electronic Ensemble, Song Wol wrote several very popular nationalistic ballads and performed folk music. Among these were “She is a Discharged Soldier” and “We are Troops of the Party,” but the most notable was the 2005 hit, “Excellent Horse-Like Lady.” In 2006 she dropped out of the media after marrying an officer in the elite Escort Command. Jong-Il ordered her to end her career, in an attempt to establish distance between her and Jong Un.

She returned to the stage briefly in March 8, 2012, to perform a song for International Women’s Day. According to The Telegraph, she was “heavily pregnant” at this televised appearance. Jong Un was in the audience for this show—his father, three months deceased, was at last unable to prevent this.

The Tragedy of Hyon Song Wol
Ri Son Ju and Kim Jong Un, July 2012. Image: KNS/AFP/Getty Images.

This is where the confusion comes in. On July 6, 2012, there was a performance for Kim Jong Un to promote his openness to the rest of the world. It was a revue of Disney songs, with dancers dressed up as Minnie Mouse and Tigger. He seemed to enjoy the show, but he had brought an unknown woman with him to witness the spectacle.

She appeared with bobbed hair, a dark suit of Chanel cut, and the mandatory Kim Il Sung cloisonne pin he also wore, but there was no name attributed to her. Because his marriage hadn’t been disclosed until July 25, analysts and media scrambled to guess who this woman could be, and the most common supposition was that he was still seeing his ex-girlfriend, Song Wol.

Only one man, Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura, correctly surmised who this woman was. Unfortunately, he had published a book in 2008 that claimed Jong Il had actually died of diabetes in 2003 and the DPRK was using a series of stand-ins for photo opportunities. This is probably why no one listened to him or, as in the case of New York Magazine, wildly misinterpreted him to suit their salacious ends.

However, knowing what we know now, this woman clearly was Ri Sol Ju, his wife of three years. They’d been married in 2009 but state media didn’t announce this until the end of July 2012. Those were a crazy three weeks, when people had embellished the rumors to the point where Jong Eun was apparently maintaining an affair… though how is this possible if no one knew he was married? See, I believe there are enough real facts about the crimes and violations of the DPRK that we don’t need to make up petty rumors to further degrade their image. How does the leader having an affair make 100,000 people in death camps sound any worse?

It made it worse for Song Wol. Think about it: Sol Ju could have conceivably held some bitterness that Song Wol was so popular in the same band Sol Ju had been in, even after her status had been downgraded. That’s not much, but then Pyongyang officials gossiped that Jong Un was still seeing his ex-girlfriend, according to South Korean intelligence, and she could have picked up on this. This isn’t to say that Sol Ju has any real power at all, as she’s been “grounded” from public appearances twice, gone so long people had begun to think she was dead.

But the true and final nail in the coffin was in August 2013, when members of Unhasu Orchestra were wiretapped by the DPRK and heard to comment upon Sol Ju’s youthful caprices: “In the past, Ri Sol-ju used to play around in the same manner as we did” before she met Jong Un, according to the Asahi Shinbun.

That’s why it’s important to understand whether Song Wol was in Ponchonbo Electronic Ensemble or Unhasu Orchestra. If the latter, she was being executed with her band; if the former, they were reaching very far for an excuse to kill her off, because there were simply not enough reasons to do this. If I had to formulate a theory, it would be that Jong Un is attempting to clean up his own past.

More charges than this were brought up, of course, and for Sol Ju’s reputation this was played down. Song Wol and Mun Kyong Jin were accused of filming and selling sex tapes. Kyong Jin was an accomplished violinist, rated North Korea’s finest, and one-time head of Unhasu Orchestra. However, if you look at screen stills of the video, the woman featured does not resemble Song Wol; she looks more Filipino than Korean. Also, that stack of Heineken in the background is a pretty clear indicator this was not filmed in North Korea. Now, the DPRK does have strict anti-pornography laws, but the punishment for this alone is not death.

Left: woman in sex tape. Right: Song Wol in music video.

Or else that’s not the tape at all—Business Insider suggests the sex tape in question was this surreal performance of “Aloha Oe,” on sale in China. Which would be even tamer and less comprehensible.

Twelve victims in total were arrested on August 17, 2013, and on August 20 they were executed by machine gun fire. These included other members of Unhasu Orchestra and a few dancers and singers from Wangjaesan Light Music Band. They were all loosely accused of possessing or performing in sex tapes and owning Bibles, “and all were treated as political dissidents.”

The execution reportedly was witnessed by members of Unhasu Orchestra, Ponchonbo Electronic Ensemble, Moranbong Band and Wangjaesan Light Music Band, as well as the victims’ immediate families. Presumably this was to issue a warning message to these bands. Unhasu Orchestra and Wanjaesan Light Music Band have been disbanded, which supports the report that a substantial number of their members are dead.

Shortly thereafter, predictably, Jong Un denied ordering the nine musicians to death (nine? Twelve? These things are so hard to confirm) and attacked South Korea’s “reptile media” (???) for distorting the truth and propagating falsity. What color is that kettle, DPRK?

There are, of course, those who disbelieve the execution ever took place, which would mean that Song Wol is either languishing in a labor camp, laying low in a remote village or, improbably, found the means to defect. Those are pretty much the three possible outcomes when someone has been convicted and disappears, I reckon. As well, one must wonder what has happened to the military officer she married and their son: if she was “heavily pregnant” in March, he could have been born before she was killed (perhaps June or July). Unfortunately, the most reasonable answer to this is that they are in a labor camp.

UPDATE (May 21, 2014): She’s not dead anymore. Hyon Song Wol has appeared on state TV, singing her praises of the administration as though she weren’t missing for the previous eight months. I doubt we’ll hear any explanation of this mystery from KCNA, but at least she’s okay. I hope Mun Kyong Jin is too, as well as all the other musicians implicated.

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