The Surprising Connection Between North Korea's Strange Succession Plans and the Martial Arts
Christopher M. Clarke

North Korea's strange and secretive leader, Kim Jong Il, last September passed over two older sons to name his youngest-Kim Jong Un-a full general and vice chairman (under his father) of the North Korean Central Military Work Commission, the center of power in this hermetic communist-party ruled dictatorship. Kim Jong Un, believed to have been educated in Switzerland as a youngster, theretofore had been all but invisible in North Korean politics and social events and has no known military background. The appointment of the youngest son, believed to be in his late 20s, marked him as heir-apparent to his father, who will turn 70 in February. The elder Kim is widely believed to suffer from diabetes and to have had a stroke in late 2008. In recent appearances, he has sometimes appeared impaired, with apparent weakness on one side (likely confirmation of an earlier stroke).


What does any of this have to do with the martial arts-aside from the fact that Kim Jong Un now sits at the top of one of the world's largest and most belligerent armies, a military that is widely believed to have sunk a South Korean ship last March, killing 46 sailors and that shelled of a coastal South Korean island in November that killed four people? Well, it turns out there's an interesting connection.

Kim Jong Un's mother was Ko Yong Hee (1953-2004), daughter of Ko Tae Mun, a native of Cheju Island off the southern coast of South Korea.i Ko Tae Mun's father had moved to Japan sometime in the 1920s, and in 1933, he was joined by his son, then 13. They lived in Osaka's Tsuruhashi district, an area that for decades had hosted a thriving Korean community. It is unclear what Tae Mun's father did for a living, but the area was well known as home to a thriving black market, especially after the War. Little is known about Tae Mun's early years or education, but he apparently married a Korean woman-whether from the Osaka community or newly arrived from Cheju is unclear-who worked as a seamstress. Tae Mun apparently spent a good deal of his time just hanging around and drinking, but he also was a regular at a local judo dojo where his was one of four Korean tough guys. It is not clear who taught at the dojo or what rank Tae Mun may have achieved. In any event, these Korean judoka appeared to have been something of a local gang who protected Koreans from the discrimination and sometimes violence of the native Japanese.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ko tried to make a living as a fulltime judo teacher, but the impoverished conditions of post-War Japan and discrimination against Koreans worked against him. In 1956, he decided to follow the example of a fellow Korean who had made it big in the Japanese Pro Wrestling business-Rikidozan-and he set up his own professional wrestling group. He selected a Japanese name-Daidosan, the Japanese transliteration of the name of a river that flows through Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea-and hoped to capitalize on the wrestling boom that often featured smaller Japanese (or Koreans) defeating bigger Americans.ii Despite the financial backing of a group of Korean businessmen, Ko's endeavor failed and he soon disbanded his group.

In 1959, Kim Il Sung appealed to Koreans overseas, especially in Japan, to return to North Korea and help rebuild the country after decades of occupation and the devastation of the Korean War. Ultimately, about 93,000 Koreans relocated from Japan to North Korea by the mid-1980s, the vast majority of them in the early 1960s.

Kim specifically also wanted to build North Korea into a world sports power, emulating the success of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communist countries which were then emerging on the cutting edge of world sport competition and athletic training. Kim apparently sent two high-ranking officials of the North Korean-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan to approach Ko and coax him to emigrate to the North. In 1961, Ko and his family-including his daughter, Ko Young Hee-packed up and took a ship to start their new life in North Korea.

There, Ko Tae Mun became the official "father" of North Korean judo. Although he died in 1980, the roots he established created one of today's world powerhouses of international judo competition.

But the story doesn't end there. Ko's daughter, Young Hee, was described by someone who knew her in the 1960s as "slim and very pretty" and commented that she would often visit her father's dojo. With an influential father and her own good looks, she gained entry to the prestigious Mansudae Art Troop as a dancer. There she caught the roving eye of Kim Jong Il, the playboy son of the supreme leader, Kim Il Sung. Although most Koreans who had returned to the North from Japan (denigrated as "Jaepo") were mistrusted and discriminated against politically, Young Hee became Kim Jong Il's mistress. By 1973, she had become the lead dancer of the Mansudae Troop and was allowed to go on tour in Japan. The visit, according to rumor, was a present from Jong Il, who told her to go back to the land of her youth and buy whatever she wanted. She died in Europe in 2004 while undergoing treatment for cancer. Rumors suggest Kim Jong Il was devastated by the loss.


Ko Young Hee, 1953-2004

Ko Young Hee, though never officially married to Kim Jong Il, bore him three children, including the youngest son, Kim Jong Un, now the heir-apparent to power in the secretive and hostile "Hermit Kingdom" of North Korea. It seems unlikely he ever trained in judo, but he can claim that in addition to being the grandson of the founder of North Korea he is also the grandson of the father of North Korean judo.

i During the 1940s, Cheju was the site of violent leftist resistance to the newly established US occupation government and its successor right-wing South Korean semi-dictatorship under General Park Chung-hee. Throughout the Korean Peninsula, this was a period of bitter struggle between US-favored politicians, most of whom had collaborated with the Japanese invaders and occupiers since the 1930s and leftist and communist guerrillas who had fought against the Japanese. Most of the latter, including Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Il's father) had fought with the Chinese communists in China because of the Japanese stranglehold over the entire Korean Peninsula. With the end of the World War II, civil conflict between leftist and rightist forces broke out all over Korea. In Cheju Island, many farmers especially backed the communist-inspired rebels and the military regime in Seoul undertook a brutal repression campaign that eventually forced many of the rebels to flee either to the North or to Japan. Future hagiographers of Kim Jong Un and his parents are likely to focus on their ties to leftist Cheju rather than the less politically correct fact that they were "Jaepo."

ii I have been unable to locate any photograph of Ko Tae Mun.

Sources: Kokita Kiyohito, Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Mark Selden, "Ko Tae Mun, Ko Chung Hee, and the Osaka Family Origins of North Korean Successor Kim Jong Un," Japan Focus at, accessed 1/3/11; "Another family twist seen for Kim Jong-il," Joong Ang Daily at article/print.asp; and posting by Joseph Svinth on JudoForum at