A fissure may be opening up in the appearance of unity among members of North Korea’s ruling family just two days after leader Kim Jong-il staged the biggest parade in North Korean history to show off his third son, Kim Jong-un, as heir to power.
Kim Jong-nam, the oldest of Kim Jong-il’s three sons, told a Japanese TV reporter that he was “personally opposed to the hereditary transfer to a third generation of the family,” while wishing his youngest half-brother, Kim Jong-un, well and promising “to help him whenever necessary.”
Kim Jong-nam, who resides in the former Portuguese colony of Macao, a gambling enclave on China’s southern coast, made the remark Saturday in a conversation with a reporter from Japan's TV Asahi. That was the same day when Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un appeared at elaborate mass games in Pyongyang’s May First Stadium and the day before they reviewed a parade showing off the North’s military might. The conversation, however, was not aired until Tuesday.
Discord in the family
The remarks of the older half-brother strike a distinctly discordant note among the paeans of praise in North Korea for the son who’s been chosen to carry on the legacy even if there was no sign of a desire to oppose their father’s choice.
Indeed, Kim Jong-nam, the son of an actress, professed “no interest” in a decision that he said “as a matter of course” would have been made by his father. Jong-nam, whose mother died in 2002, is assumed to have lost out on inheriting leadership after his arrest and detention in 2001 by immigration officials at Japan’s Narita Airport near Tokyo. Traveling on a fake Dominican passport, accompanied by two women and a son, aged four, he reportedly said he was bringing them to nearby Disneyland.
Kim Jong-nam’s remarks, which are likely to be viewed as traitorous inside North Korea when and if they are seen there, also veered toward heresy by evincing concern for North Korea’s people, most of whom are reported to be underfed if not starving. By expressing the hope that “my younger brother will do his best to make the lives of the North Korean people affluent,” he came close to acknowledging that many of North Korea’s 24 million people are likely suffering in one way or another.
While Kim Jong-nam is known to speak out from time to time, Kim Jong-un has maintained total silence in several appearances with his father since his rise to the post of vice chairman of the military commission of the Workers’ Party and a member of the party’s central committee.
“I doubt he will say anything for a long time,” says Steve Linton, who has visited North Korea some 70 times dispensing aid. “They’ll show him off to show they are stable. He will not get in front of his old man.”
Mr. Linton notes, however, a remarkable similarity between the appearance of Kim Jong-un, still in his late 20s, and that of his grandfather, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. “They are trying to make him look like his grandfather,” he says, acknowledging rumors that Kim Jong-un has had plastic surgery intended to heighten the family resemblance.
Other critics of dynastic rule
Kim Jong-nam was not the only critic of dynastic rule in North Korea. Christopher Hill, former chief US negotiator on North Korea’s nuclear program, revisiting Seoul, said the succession process raises the question of “whether this is a stable state.”
The Chinese, said Mr. Hill, now dean of international studies at the University of Denver, “really should do some thinking” and “dissociate the notion of status quo from stability because this is not a stable situation.” That remark suggested criticism of China for refusing to join in condemning North Korea for the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors, while calling instead for “stability on the Korean peninsula.”
Linton, however, says North Korea is increasingly dependent on China. “With every day that passes they’re less interested in the US connection,” he says. “They’re resigned to the Chinese connection,” he goes on, meaning that North Korea has no option other than to obtain aid from China for survival.
Kim Jong-nam's comments come just before the death of Hwang Jang-yop, a far more outspoken critic of North Korea’s dynasty.
Hwang Jang-yop, one-time chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly and a tutor to Kim Jong-il in his youth, died early Sunday of an apparent heart attack in the home that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service had provided him. Mr. Hwang, under constant guard against possible assassination by North Korean agents, defected while on a trip to China in 1997 by entering the South Korean embassy to Beijing with an aide.
South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak sent a message of condolences to the mortuary in Seoul where hundreds of visitors have paid respects before his coffin.
The government planned to confer on him posthumously its “order of civil merit,” its highest recognition, for his fiery defiance of a regime whose inner workings he exposed in great detail.