North Korea drama: Where are Kim Jong-un's brothers?

Conspicuously absent from all images coming out of North Korea are Kim Jong-il's two other sons.

Kim Jong-un, North Korea's new leader, presides over a memorial for his father on Thursday. Nowhere to be seen are his two older brothers.

The two older sons of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il face uncertain fates as political exiles, while brother Kim Jong-un assumes the mantle of power in Pyongyang.

Analysts offer that view after finding no signs that either has come to visit their father’s body lying in state in a glass-enclosed coffin in Pyongyang.

In fact, say analysts, the spectacle of two blood brothers in the wings would be more than a mere distraction. It would be difficult to convince people that at least one of them wasn't waiting to take over, especially since they're both older and the "supreme leader," after all, has done little to prove he's worthy of the title.

The eldest, Kim Jong-nam, at least a decade older than Jong-un, “appears to have security concerns,” says Michael Breen, a long-time consultant here who’s written a biography of Kim Jong-il. “He might be assassinated.”

The need to keep Kim Jong-nam and his brother, Kim Jong-chul, far out of sight underlines the insecurity of a regime that immediately thrust Kim Jong-il’s handpicked “great successor” into the limelight as “supreme leader” of the armed forces and the ruling party after his death two weeks ago.

The regime in recent days has gone to extraordinary lengths to put Kim Jong-un on display. On Thursday on North Korean State TV he was proclaimed “supreme leader” of the ruling party and the armed forces before 200,000 people massed on Kim Il-sung square in central Pyongyang. 

Then on Friday, North Korea’s national defense commission, the center of power, previously under Kim Jong-il as chairman, warned  “foolish politicians around the world not to expect any changes from us." It singled out South Korea’s President Lee Myung bak, denouncing him as a “national traitor,” and made it clear it would not have any dealings with him.

In a campaign designed as much for domestic politics as foreign consumption, the build-up for Kim Jong-un bears vestiges of a system that endures in the style of the Chosun dynasty that held sway over the Korean peninsula for 500 years before Japan annexed all Korea as a colony in 1910. In those days, brothers were routinely eliminated as threats to the man on the throne.

David Straub, associate director of the Korea Studies program at Stanford, makes another comparison. “When you look at North Korea ’s situation, you need to think in terms of European monarchies and dynasties,” he says. “This is the way dynasties in nondemocratic countries behave.” 

Mr. Straub, former Korea desk chief at the State Department, believes Kim Jong-nam “is probably safe” from state assassination attempts as long as he chooses to live quietly in Macao.

'Stuff of legend'

Still, Straub compares the court drama in North Korea with that of medieval Europe in which royal rivalries and assassinations were the stuff of legend.

Kim Jong-nam, mentioned as a possible successor before Japanese immigration officials in 2001 nabbed him at Tokyo’s Narita Airport trying to enter Japan with a fake Dominican passport, has lived for years in the gambling center of Macao on the southeastern China coast.  His excuse that he wanted to take his 4-year-old son to Disneyland did not impress the Japanese authorities, who finally sent him on to China after holding him for several days.

After that, Kim Jong-nam appeared to have been on the outs with his father. He was reported in the media here to have heard of his father’s death from Chinese, not North Korean, officials while visiting Beijing but was reportedly banned from flying to Pyongyang and is believed to have returned to Macao.

Before the incident at Narita, so worried was his step mother, the mother of Jong-un and Jong-chul, that Jong-nam was a possible rival for power with her own sons that she is rumored to have wanted to have him assassinated during a trip to Europe some time before she passed away in Paris.

Kim Jong-nam may have fallen still deeper into disfavor after a Japanese newspaper early this year quoted him as saying “hereditary succession” did not “fit socialism and my father was against it” but it “was done to stabilize the framework of the nation.”

“He’s talked about succession in unflattering terms,” says Mr. Breen. “That regime is very unflattering to those who betray them.” He notes that a nephew of Kim Il-sung was assassinated by North Korean agents in 1997 after defecting to South Korea and writing a tell-all book about his uncle.

Eric Clapton and the other brother

The case of Kim Jong-chul, as the full blood older brother of Kim Jong-un, is quite different. “He definitely stays in Pyongyang,” says Baek Sung-joo, director of the security and strategy center of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “He has a close relationship with Jong-nam.

Kim Jong-chul at 30 is not known to have ever had any real job but appears in no danger of assassination.

Kim Jong-il was once believed to have had him in mind as a successor after ruling out Kim Jong-nam, but word is that he finally decided he was too effete and effeminate for the job. That judgment may have been confirmed, in the eyes of his father and those around him, after he was seen at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore last February on top of reports that he had also attended Clapton concerts in Germany.

Aside from his love for “decadent” western pop, Kim Jong-chul does not seem to have offended the regime. Mr. Baek assumes the reason he was not at his father’s bier is that his presence would have detracted attention from his younger brother.

“If there is no Jong-chul, the cameras will focus only on Jong-un,” he says. “Kim Jong-chul will not show up for some time.”

But, “he’s a free man," says Mr. Sohn, and may possibly be able to travel abroad again and attend his favorite concerts. It’s just that “he cannot enter the power elite,” he says. “He cannot have a position.” 

Big brother Kim Jong-nam, however, raises more serious issues. “Maybe the new power elite will make a decision how to deal with him,” says Baek. “If he makes big trouble for the new leadership, North Korea will deal roughly with him. He has little chance ever to see his brothers again.”

North Korean agents may decide to leave Jong-nam alone if he behaves himself, and avoids the reporters who’ve been looking for him in Macao since his father’s death was reported nearly two weeks ago. 

“He’s not unsafe as long as he’s not challenging the power transition,” says Choi Jin-wook, director of North Korean research at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “He’s not in trouble if he’s not a danger.”

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