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     Feb 6, 2007
North Korean heir gambles with his future
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - What does the son of a Stalinist dictator do when he has fallen out of favor with Daddy?

Kim Jong-nam, heir apparent to North Korea's "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il, probably isn't the best example to follow. Six years after being arrested in Tokyo for carrying a forged passport, the eldest son has again embarrassed his father by crashing into the news at a sensitive time. The 35-year-old scion has apparently taken up residence in various five-star hotels in Macau, the former

Portuguese enclave that returned to Chinese rule in 1999 and is fast becoming the Las Vegas of Asia.

Numerous sightings of the junior Kim in Macau's casinos, bars and sauna houses sparked the South China Morning Post to undertake a six-week investigation, which the paper said last week established that he has been living the high life in the city for at least the last three years.

A Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, ran a similar story that included a photo of the distinctly rotund Kim Jong-nam outside the posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel. He reportedly travels on passports (not forged this time) from the Dominican Republic and Portugal and lives the life of a playboy out of the city's finest hotels while his family stays in a large villa on Coloane, Macau's outer island.

According to the Post, Kim frequently travels to Beijing, Bangkok, Moscow and European capitals, but he has made Macau, one hour away from Hong Kong by high-speed ferry, his home. He likes to gamble, feast on Korean food and take late-night tipples of cognac with his friends. He is also said to spend hours rejuvenating from his nocturnal adventures in the city's saunas.

Kim has tried to keep a low profile and avoid the media spotlight, but he has once again stumbled into its glare at an awkward time. First, there is simply the embarrassment of the possible heir to the throne of North Korea's hermit kingdom living it up in the gambling capital of Asia while many are reportedly starving in his impoverished nation of 23 million people.

More important, however, the revelation comes as the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear-weapons program are scheduled to resume this week in Beijing and with US$24 million in North Korean accounts frozen at the request of the US government in Macau's Banco Delta Asia.

China is the host of the talks and key to their success. It does not strengthen Beijing's position with the other parties - the US, South Korea, Russia and Japan - to have the son of the North Korean leader living in luxury on Chinese soil.

It also doesn't help that Macau is the home of the bank that the US Treasury Department alleges was used for a money-laundering operation that may have played a role in financing North Korea's apparently successful test of a small-scale nuclear device last October. The US has linked the North Korean accounts to trade in arms, illegal drugs and counterfeit US dollars.

As a result of the US charges, the accounts were frozen, and the bank is now in the hands of government-appointed receivers. The $24 million is a crucial sticking point for Pyongyang in the nuclear talks.

Making the plot thicker, the Dear Leader will celebrate his 65th birthday on February 16 - which in North Korea qualifies as an occasion for lavish celebration and national thanksgiving. The event will no doubt stir renewed interest in the question of his successor in a country that has created the world's only communist dynasty.

By the time his father - North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung - had reached his mid-60s, he had already named Kim Jong-il, his first-born, as the country's next leader. And indeed, the son dutifully took over after his father's death in 1994.

The speculation once was that the dynastic succession would continue. But the North Korean ruler has yet to name his heir.

That's probably because he hasn't found one he regards as worthy. Despite his transgressions, however, the eldest son - born to his father's mistress, the famous actress Sun Hae-rim - cannot be ruled out in a nation that still embraces the Confucian ideal of filial piety. Two half-brothers - Jong-chol, 23, and Jong-woon, 20, products of his father's marriage to dancer Ko Yong-hui - do not yet appear to figure in the succession story.

If the North Korean leader were to die tomorrow, top officers in the country's 1-million-strong military would most likely take over. But allowing for greater longevity for the Dear Leader, there is time for the eldest son to work his way back into his father's good graces. After all, Kim Jong-il had developed his own reputation for extravagance and debauchery before taking the mantle of leadership from his father. He might even have a soft spot for his wayward first-born.

Judging from the record of the past several years, however, the son has fallen far from his father's favor. Reportedly once the target of assassination plots, Kim Jong-nam now travels without a bodyguard - a sign North Korea watchers point to as evidence he is no longer in serious contention for leadership.

Once upon a time, however, the future looked bright for Pyongyang's No 1 son. Educated at an elite school for children of the country's leaders until he was 10, Jong-nam was then sent off, accompanied by his disconsolate mother, to study in Geneva and Moscow. His mother died in Moscow in 2002.

While abroad, Kim showed a talent for learning foreign languages and computer science. After his return to Pyongyang, his star quickly began to rise in the shadowy world of North Korean politics. In 1998, he was named to a senior position in the Ministry of Public Security, the country's powerful intelligence organization. He also served as head of the Korea Computer Center, which worked in cooperation with South Korean companies but has also been connected to the development of North Korea's cyber-warfare technology.

But Kim Jong-nam's prospects took a dive on that fateful day in May 2001 when he was detained in Tokyo for traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport using the Chinese alias Pang Xiong (which translates as Fat Bear). He was subsequently deported to China, after which his father abruptly canceled a planned visit to that country.

Since then, neither father nor son has shown much interest in the other. This latest incident can only distance them further. Meanwhile, the world watches and, as usual, wonders what is really going on in Pyongyang.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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On pins and needles over Kim Jong-il's heir (Apr 28, '06)

Sons and heirs (Aug 18, '06)


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