There Are No Ordinary North Korean Aristocrats

Christopher Green
Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was assassinated for the crime of being related to a dictator.

For North Korea’s heir apparent Kim Jong Un, Oct. 10, 2010, was a glorious day. It was just two weeks since he had been unveiled before the nation as the successor to then-leader Kim Jong Il, his father, at a big conference of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. That day, journalists from around the world, even the hated United States, descended upon Pyongyang to bear witness to the unity and might of the Workers’ Party on its 65th anniversary. There was a military parade, and shutters clicked as Jong Un and his father waved down to the crowd from their dais. It all went according to plan, and, to top it off, the Kim regime’s most hated critic, former politician and defector Hwang Jang Yop, had been found dead in his Seoul bathroom that very morning. Hwang’s death was a fortunate coincidence — assassins were forever chasing him, but it was age that got there first.

The next day, however, didn’t go nearly so well. And as is usual for the Kims, it was family who got in the way. An interview that Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, had recorded on Oct. 9 was broadcast on Japan’s TV Asahi, in which he made candid comments about losing out on the leadership of North Korea (“I am not disappointed”), the choice of Kim Jong Un as successor (“It was my father’s decision”), and the speed at which the succession seemed to be proceeding (“I think there are internal reasons for it”). He demurred over his father’s health (“I have no comment”) but then added for good measure, “Personally speaking, I am opposed to the third-generation succession.” By the low standards of defiance in Pyongyang, this was throwing down the gauntlet.

It was neither the first nor the last of Kim Jong Nam’s incendiary comments about his family.

Like his father, Jong Nam had been brought up expecting a place at the top. His much older cousin Ri Il Nam, then a teenager, recalled playing with Jong Nam when he was a small child. It wasn’t a task Ri much relished.

In a florid memoir released 14 years after his 1982 defection to South Korea, Ri recalls one of his first meetings with Jong Nam in 1977. Ri was dressed in the uniform of North Korea’s hyper-elite Mangyongdae Revolutionary School — but the 6-year-old Jong Nam was sporting the attire of a senior military officer.

“My military uniform is better than yours,” Jong Nam declared precociously.

“Is that so?” asked Ri. “What is yours?”

“It is the uniform of a marshal,” came the reply. “My father had it made for me on my birthday.”

Kim Jong Il wasn’t yet leader — that would have to wait until his father, original dictator Kim Il Sung, died in 1994 — but he was determined to make sure his son got his proper place. On his birthday each year, Jong Nam is said to have put on a military uniform and reviewed an honor guard, and every year he would be promoted one more rank. By the age of 7, he was at the very top. There was no question that Kim Jong Il adored his son.

But there was a problem. Jong Nam’s mother, Song Hye Rim, was not married to Jong Il, which made his parentage and upbringing an awkward maneuvering point for the ruling family. Jong Il, who was struggling to ensure that he would be the one to inherit the leadership from Kim Il Sung, dared not let the truth get out. Finally, in 1974, after six years of trying to legitimize the relationship and mired in a deep depression, Song left North Korea for the Soviet Union.

It is often said that Jong Nam would have inherited the North Korean throne were it not for an embarrassing incident that resulted in his deportation from Japan in 2001 for traveling on a fake passport. But even as a small child in a marshal’s uniform, his place in the line of succession was already insecure. By the time Ri Il Nam met Jong Nam, Jong Il’s next lover, Ko Young Hee, was on her way to taking Song’s place. By the late 1990s, Kim Jong Un was the one being educated about the revolutionary sites of North Korea whilst a miniature cult of personality was being built around Ko. The stock of Ko’s two sons, Jong Un and Jong Chul, grew, mostly at Jong Nam’s expense.

In March 2011, Jong Nam acknowledged his obvious political decline. Pointing out that his half-siblings had been born while he was studying in Geneva back in the 1980s, Jong Nam mused that his father had probably redirected his love toward Jong Chul, Jong Un, and their sister, Yo Jong, starting many years before. “I was a totally capitalist kid,” he explained. “I guess my father didn’t expect anything from me.”

In the grand sweep of North Korean history, Jong Nam’s deportation from Tokyo is less of an issue than we tend to think. Carrying a fake passport to travel abroad was common back then for the North’s elite, eager to enjoy foreign luxuries. Jong Un is alleged to have tried it, using a Brazilian passport to enter Japan. Getting deported made headlines around the world, but for Jong Nam, “It didn’t change my life one little bit.” The die was already cast. Soon, he would leave North Korea once and for all, sent into Asian exile as an unwelcome branch of the dynastic family — and it was in exile that he met his end, poison sprayed into his eyes in a Malaysian airport.

In the years leading up to his death, Jong Nam had begun to cut a rather tragic public figure. He would appear every now and then, often in airports. There, he would invariably be buttonholed on the hoof by media from South Korea and Japan, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for news of the lives of the North Korean ruling family. He didn’t give too much away — and besides, for all the ignominy that accompanied a life in Macau exile, he seemed to be enjoying himself. At a minimum, exile was an effective way of staying alive, for a while at least.

With the death of his father, Jong Nam said he wanted to stop talking. Things had become more dangerous. In the final batch of emails that he sent to Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi, Jong Nam warned that while Pyongyang may have accepted his outspoken comments previously, during the 100 days of mourning for his late father it was imperative to remain silent and respectful. He told the Japanese journalist to ensure that no new information emerged and said after three years he would return to the idea of publishing a book of their correspondences.

On Jan. 3, 2012, in his very last email, Jong Nam spoke still more critically about the succession of his brother. He questioned the concept of third-generation hereditary rule and wondered aloud whether Jong Un, with a mere two years of succession training under his belt, had the ability to manage North Korea in his father’s absence.

Ignoring Jong Nam’s warning, Gomi published the book in Japanese a few short weeks later. It came out in Korean on March 21, 2012. Only 95 days had passed since Kim Jong Il’s death.

The nature of Jong Nam’s assassination is still unclear. One of the assassins has been caught — holding Vietnamese documentation that may be as fake as Jong Nam’s own passport once was — but we still don’t know why Jong Nam was killed. Given the target and the method, which recalls the assassination of dissident Bulgarian Georgi Markov with a poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge four decades ago, it is hardly surprising that all eyes are on Pyongyang. The killing has more than a hint of state sponsorship about it. But on the other hand, Jong Nam lived a troubled existence. His love life was as complicated and varied as Jong Il’s had once been, and there is no doubt that he had enemies, and connections, in the shadowy, frequently criminal world of North Koreans overseas. Macau is China’s offshore center of both gambling and the triads. Plenty of people could have wished him dead.

If we can be sure of one thing, though, it is that the North Korean government doesn’t take kindly to people spilling the beans on the inner workings of the Kim dynasty. When Ri Il Nam was shot dead in front of his apartment elevator in Seoul at the end of February 1997, at first there was speculation it must have been an act of retribution for the defection of the senior Workers’ Party secretary Hwang Jang Yop in China a few days earlier. This was plausible; Kim Jong Il was reportedly livid at the escape. But the shooting of Ri could also have been in response to the book he’d written the previous year, in which he loudly and clearly exposed the Kim family in all its extravagant vulgarity, or to the defection of Ri’s mother, Song Hye Rim’s sister, who also wrote a colorful book about her experiences. There seems to be no proximate cause to take out Jong Nam now — but some invisible line may long since have been crossed.

At the end of the day, Kim Jong Nam’s death is not likely to attract much in the way of sympathy. He was no dissident, but instead a castoff aristocrat, and he didn’t speak truth to power. He advanced the agenda of North Korean human rights not one iota. He had a documented interest in opening the North Korean economy but didn’t make much progress in that area, either. He lived and died in exile, an occasionally outspoken symbol of the abject failure of the North Korean political system to resolve its internal differences without acts of deadly violence.

Photo credit: KNS/AFP/Getty Images