The oldest son of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il appears to harbor secret ambitions of his own to succeed his father – despite the fact that his youngest half-brother has already been chosen as successor.
That's the impression Kim Jong-nam is creating here on the basis of remarks that his father would likely view as blasphemous. First there was his surprisingly frank interview with a Japanese televsion network, and then there are comments that he reportedly made to a contact in the gambling enclave of Macao, the one time Portuguese colony on the south China coast where he's been living.
According to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, Kim Jong-nam is said to have told one contact who saw him in Macao that North Korea “is collapsing,” and he has no desire “to take over the baton” now that Kim Jong-un has emerged as the one to rule the country when his father leaves the scene.
Some analysts believe, however, that Kim Jong-nam is just waiting to see if Kim Jong-un can do the job – and has carefully left open the possibility of eventually returning to North Korea in the top position.
“He’s giving a strong signal that should the regime of Kim Jong-un collapse, then he’s the solution,” says Ha Tae-kyung, president of Open Radio North Korea, reporting by short wave for clandestine listeners in North Korea. "He knows North Koreans are disenchanted."
Kim Jong-nam’s remarks about North Korea’s impending collapse were quoted by a senior South Korean official, Lee Ki-taek, deputy chairman of the South’s national unification advisory council, in a lecture in Berlin. Mr. Lee, speaking to Koreans living in Berlin, attributed them to a source who had seen Kim in Macao last month.
Carefully rehearsed remarks?
Mr. Ha believes Kim Jong-nam carefully rehearsed remarks that he made in an on-the-record interview with TV Asahi, a major Japanese network, during a recent visit to Beijing. Kim in that interview said he opposed “third-generation succession” – an allusion to the dynastic handover of power from long-ruling Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, to Kim Jong-il and then to Kim Jong-un.
“He planned that comment in advance,” says Ha, whose station relies on secret cellphone contacts inside North Korea for much of its information. “There was a reason for his decision to talk in that way.”
Ha highlighted the rivalry between Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-un in a seminar at which Kim Jong-il’s one-time chef talked about his memories of the family.
Mr. Fujimoto also noted one comment that appeared to have been a deliberate effort to enrage his father. Rather than referring to North Korea by its formal name, “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Kim Jong-nam used the same Korean words for “North Korea” that are commonly used by South Koreans.
This particular usage, he said, was one way “to show determination.” He doubted if such remarks would “come out by accident in the process of speaking.” For that reason, he said, “there is a possibility that North Korea will assassinate him.”
How other brothers fell
Both Kim Jong-nam and middle brother, Kim Jong-chul, born of the same mother as Kim Jong-un, were believed at various stages to have been seriously in the running for power. Both of them, however, fell from grace after publicly showing an interest in western forms of entertainment.
Kim Jong-nam fell out of favor in 2001 after immigration officials at Japan’s Narita airport discovered he was entering the country on a false Dominican passport. Accompanied by two women and a small child, he said he was on his way to Disneyland.
Kim Jong-un in recent days has been reported by the North Korean media as visiting a secret military base and also the command center of Chinese forces who rescued North Korea during the Korean War. His father accompanied him on both visits, said Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.
Daily NK, a website here that relies on cellphone reports from inside North Korea, reports that young North Koreans have been mocking Kim Jong-un in songs.
“The authorities are extremely sensitive,” Daily NK reported, “because there have been several attempted arson cases and negative opinions directed at the Kim Jong-un succession.”