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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 email@example.com.