Jang Song-thaek had met one of the daughters of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, while both attended Kim Il-sung University in the mid-1960s. The daughter, Kim Kyong-hee, developed a crush on Mr. Jang, who was tall and humorous — and sang and played the accordion. Her father transferred the young man to a provincial college to keep the two apart. But Ms. Kim hopped in her Soviet Volga sedan to see Mr. Jang each weekend. Once they married in 1972, Mr. Jang’s career took off under the patronage of Kim Jong-il, his brother-in-law and the designated successor of the regime. Few benefited more than Mr. Jang from the regime he loyally served. But he was never fully embraced by the Kim family because he was not blood kin.
North Korean diplomats who have defected to South Korea also said that during his frequent trips overseas to shop for Mr. Kim, Mr. Jang would drink heavily and speak dejectedly about people dying of hunger back home. Mr. Ra said Hwang Jang-yop, a North Korean party secretary who defected to Seoul in 1997 shared a conversation he once had with Mr. Jang. When told that the North’s economy was cratering, Mr. Jang responded sarcastically: “How can an economy already at the bottom go further down?”
When Kim Jong-il banished Mr. Jang three times for overstepping his authority, his wife intervened on his behalf. After Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008 and died in 2011, Mr. Jang helped his young nephew, Kim Jong-un, establish himself as successor. At the same time, he vastly expanded his own influence — and ambition. Continued