WASHINGTON - The big brother of North
Korea's fledgling "supreme leader" Kim Jong-eun is
in hiding, on the run and fearful of losing his
life as a result of his persistently critical view
of what's happening in his native land.
That's the assessment of South Korean
intelligence analysts after quotations attributed
to Kim Jong-nam, oldest son of the late Dear
Leader Kim Jong-il, revealed extreme misgivings
about what's going on within the mysterious ruling
"He's talking in order to get
attention," said a one-time South Korean
intelligence analyst. "He thinks that's the only
way to survive."
Kim Jong-nam, at 40 more
than a decade older than Kim Jong-eun, has made
the former Portuguese colony and now a special
administrative region of
China, Macau, a gambling enclave on China's
southeastern coast, his official residence for
years, but it's not clear now whether he's really
A South Korean professor recently
spotted him in a lounge in Beijing International
Airport - and was actually able to exchange a few
words with him. He seemed distinctly unsentimental
about the passing of his father - so much so as to
suggest he shared little of the purported grief
shown by his countrymen weeping and wailing on
North Korean state TV during the funeral for his
father and at events since then.
not known to have attended the funeral, responded
laconically, "Oh, [that's] nature," when
Park-Seung-jun of Incheon University asked if he
was shocked by his father's death, according to
Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. His answer
to whether he would take care of his younger
brothers and sister, according to Korean
tradition, was still more unenthusiastic.
"I guess so," big brother responded, but
he's also been saying that he has actually never
met Kim Jong-eun, They are, in fact, half brothers
- Jong-nam's mother, actress Song Hye-rim, died
mysteriously in a hospital in Moscow in 2002 after
having gone there to get away from under Kim
Jong-il, who evidently wanted her out of the way.
While Song Hye-rim was fading as Kim
Jong-il's number one lover, he was beginning his
relationship with the lady who should
theoretically have been Jong-nam's stepmother, Ko
Yong-hui. She, however, is believed to have
thought it would be a good idea if Jong-nam just
"disappeared" during travels to Europe. Ko was
pressing for the succession of one of the two sons
she had during her relationship, never quite a
marriage, with Kim Jong-il, before she too died
overseas - of cancer in Paris in 2004.
that time, Kim Jong-nam had more or less been
ruled out of the succession thanks to his
profligate lifestyle, which was revealed in 2001
when he was caught trying to enter Japan through
Tokyo's Narita airport carrying a phony Dominican
passport. He only wanted, he said, to take his
four-year-old son to Disneyland, but he never
really lived down that incident.
less in exile, however, Jong-nam still poses a
threat that North Korea's paranoid regime doesn't
need. The regime by now has mentioned Ko, who was
born in Japan, a member of a North Korean dance
troupe when Kim Jong-il first spotted her, as Kim
Jong-eun's mother. While memories of Jong-nam's
late mother have faded into total oblivion, he
lives on as a persistent critic who might some day
want to be a contender for power.
Jong-nam's case, though, might seem to be
so special as to place him out of the danger zone.
Does he not have the Chinese on his side, at least
to the extent of protecting him from assassination
attempts? The Chinese may not appreciate his
making odd deprecatory comments to Japanese
reporters who've spied him in casinos, on the
street, even on one occasion in a Macau bus, but
it's assumed they would prefer not to have to
endure the embarrassment of such a high-profile
killing on their turf.
If Kim Jong-nam
were not the son [of Kim Jong-il]," said Michael
Green , who served on the national security
council during the presidency of George W Bush,
"he would have serious security problems."
Green, now a professor at Georgetown
University, recalled numerous North Korean plots
to eliminate high-level critics abroad. Several
months ago, a North Korean who had gotten into
South Korea posing as a defector was arrested
carrying poisoned needles purportedly to be used
to assassinate the activist responsible for
launching balloons bearing leaflets filled with
vitriolic attacks on the regime.
before that, as Green reminded an audience at
Georgetown, North Korea had been plotting the
assassination of the Hwang Jang-yop, the former
North Korean party secretary who defected to the
South Korean embassy in Beijing in 1997 and died
of natural causes in 2010 in the lodging provided
by South Korea's national intelligence service.
Against this background, Kim Jong-nam's
critical remarks, far from being reckless, are
seen by some analysts as an attempt to draw
attention to his vulnerability while gaining
support among those who see the regime in
Pyongyang as facing major internal problems.
Moreover, he may well have contacts inside North
Korea who share the same sentiments.
the circumstances, Jong-nam's comments have been
exactly what those responsible for making a hero
of Kim Jong-eun do not want to hear.
week ago, for instance, he reportedly told the
Tokyo Shimbun in an e-mail that he expected "the
existing ruling elite to follow in the footsteps
of my father while keeping the young successor as
a symbolic figure". It was "difficult," he was
quoted as saying in a burst of frankness that he
has displayed in earlier encounters with the
Japanese media, "to accept a third-generation
succession under normal reasoning."
Finally, this week he's been quoted in a
newly published book by Japanese journalist Yoji
Gomi as having been still more critical in an
e-mail exchange and in interviews last year. In
the book, entitled My father Kim Jong-Il and
Me, he is quoted as having said, "North Korea
is very unstable" and "the power of the military
has become too strong". As if that were not
enough, he also told Gomi, "If the succession ends
in failure, the military will wield the real power
Given the anger that Kim
Jong-nam has presumably aroused in Pyongyang,
analysts wonder if the Chinese can always shield
him as he moves anonymously about China, from one
hiding place to another. North Korean security
people "don't care what the Chinese think," said
the former South Korean intelligence analyst.
"They don't think the Chinese can do much if they
find him and kill him."
The inside story
of what's going on, though, could not be more
elusive. "I don't think any of us know what to
make of it," said Victor Cha, who like Michael
Green served on the national security council
during the George W Bush presidency and now
teaches at Georgetown. "You have the makings of a
novel or movie, but we really don't know."