Wednesday 22 November 2017

Obituary: Kim Jong-nam

Son of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who fell out of favour after trying to visit Disneyland

Father and son: Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with the 10-year-old Kim Jong-nam in Pyongyang in August 1981 Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Father and son: Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with the 10-year-old Kim Jong-nam in Pyongyang in August 1981 Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong-nam, who was assassinated last Monday, aged 45, was the eldest son of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and half-brother of the country's current leader Kim Jong-un.

For some years Jong-nam was thought to be his father's preferred successor, but he fell out of favour after attempting to visit Disneyland in Tokyo, Japan, with a fake passport in 2001.

Kim Jong-nam was born in Pyongyang on May 10, 1971 to Song Hye-rim, an actress with whom Kim Jong-il had begun an affair in 1968. It seems that the birth was kept a secret from Kim Jong-il for some time. However, after learning of his son's existence, he was said to have begun grooming him for a future leadership role.

Following a supposedly ancient tradition of raising potential successors separately, Jong-nam and his much younger half-brother Jong-un (born in 1984) seem never to have met.

Indeed Jong-nam had a lonely childhood, being restricted to just one, much older, friend and taught by his mother until he was 10 years old, though he had the run of a 990 sq m playroom, restocked each year with toys bought overseas by "gift purchase teams" from "div 2; dept 9" of his father's personal security staff.

His favourite bedtime reading was Anne of Green Gables.

As he grew older Jong-nam showed a striking similarity to his father, from his pudgy physical appearance to his playboy personality.

According to Yoji Gomi's book My Father, Kim Jong-il, and I: Kim Jong-nam's Exclusive Confession (2012) based on conversations with the subject, Jong-nam claimed that one reason he fell out with his father was that after an education in Switzerland and Moscow, he returned to North Korea in 1993 bent on reform. "I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and opening up the market, and was eventually viewed with suspicion," he was quoted as saying.

In fact Jong-nam held several senior positions in his father's regime in the 1990s, including on a committee that headed the fearsome domestic intelligence apparatus. His highest profile role came as head of the Korea Computer Centre in the late 1990s, when he led efforts to equip his country's elite with the latest information technology. His claim that he had grown apart from his father is also thrown into doubt by reports that his stepmother, Ko Yong-hui, was at one point so worried that Jong-nam was a possible rival for power with her own sons, Jong-un and Jong-chul, that she wanted to have him assassinated on a trip to Europe.

In May 2001 Jong-nam was arrested at Japan's Narita airport trying to enter the country on a forged Dominican Republic passport, using the Chinese alias Pang Xiong ("fat bear"), and accompanied by two women and a boy (his son) aged four. He told Japanese police that he wanted to visit Disneyland.

After being detained for several days, he was deported to China.

The arrest was humiliating for his father, who was forced to cancel a state visit to China, and it is believed that Kim Jong-un became the new heir apparent due to the embarrassment caused. By late 2003 Jong-nam was reported to be living a freewheeling life in exile in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau.

In the years before his father's death in December 2011, Jong-nam resurfaced from time to time to give interviews.

In 2010 he was said to have told one contact that North Korea was "collapsing" and he had no desire "to take over the baton" when his father left the scene.

He became more outspoken still after the accession of Kim Jong-un, expressing the view, according to Yoji Gomi's book, that his youngest half-brother was a "nominal figure" whose regime would "not last long".

Of his arrest in 2001, he observed that it was common practice for high-ranking North Koreans to travel using fake identities, and asserted that Jong-un himself had visited Japan on a forged Brazilian passport.

Unsurprisingly, Jong-nam was reported to have been the target of several assassination plots, most recently in late 2012, when he was said to have fled to Singapore after South Korean authorities arrested a North Korean agent who confessed to planning to bribe a Chinese taxi driver to drive into Jong-nam and disguise it as an accident.

Kim Jong-nam reportedly had two wives, at least one mistress and several children, including a son and a daughter by his second wife, Lee Hye-Kyong.

Sunday Independent

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