North leader’s son denies asylum rumors
Although Kim Jong-nam said little in the brief exchange, he denied rumors that he has been trying to seek refuge in Europe since allegedly coming under threat of assassination after losing a power struggle to his younger brother Kim Jong-un last year.
“I have no plans on moving to Europe. Why would I?” he said. “I could go there for a vacation, but I think you have only heard rumors.”
A JoongAng Sunday reporter confronted Jong-nam, 39, in the 10th-floor elevator bank of the Altira Hotel after a late-morning meal with an unidentified woman, who looked to be a Korean in her 20s. He had previously given interviews to the Hong Kong and Japanese press, but for South Korean media it was a first.
Jong-nam appeared cool as he allowed his picture to be taken, blue Ferragamo loafers and all. But he kept the talk and his answers short.
Asked how he had been, he said, “Fine, now are you satisfied?”
As to rumors that he had been telling people in Macau that heir-apparent Kim Jong-un, who was born in 1984 (although North Korean media last year reported he was born in 1982), is the son of one of his father’s mistresses, and thus should be out of the line of succession, he replied “I do not have any idea of what you just said.”
His father’s health, he said, is “doing well,” and when asked about the Cheonan, he said “Cheonan? I do not know. Please stop.”
Kim Jong-nam abruptly ended the interview when he was asked about rumors of a crackdown last year on a safe house in Pyongyang where secret political meetings were supposedly held. With a smile and a wave, he backed through the elevator doors.
Like most of North Korea’s ruling family, little is known for certain about Kim Jong-nam. According to sources including acquaintances in Macau as well as high-ranking North Korean defectors, he was considered most likely to succeed his father until the mid-1990s. Jong-nam allegedly saw his future begin to crumble when Japan expelled him in 2001 after he was caught travelling on a false Dominican passport. The final blow came when he denounced his father’s political stratagems around the same time.
Jong-nam has since lived in China, occasionally travelling to Pyongyang for brief visits. His long absences from the country have weakened his support with favorites inside the North Korean military and government, on whom he was said to have lavished gifts such as Rolex watches.
As the rift between Jong-nam and his father deepened, his brother Jong-un began to make a name for himself. After leading a project to expand the Pyongyang University of Music in 2006, the younger son gained his father’s trust, eventually accompanying Kim Jong-il on field guidance rounds while he recovered from a stroke in September 2008. Kim Jong-il reportedly told Jang Song-thaek, the director of the administration department of the Workers’ Party as well as Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, and Ri Je-gang, the first deputy director of the party’s Organization and Guidance Department, to “help Jong-un.”
Sources said the power struggle between the brothers began after Jong-un ordered the crackdown on the house where Jong-nam’s supporters met. Jong-nam fled to Singapore after he learned of the raid, and rumors that he was seeking asylum began almost immediately after reports surfaced that Jong-un was calling in his brother’s people for questioning.
Jong-nam had survived a reported plot to kill him in October 2004, and he avoided another attempt last year only after asking for his father and uncle’s help, sources said. In interviews after the raid with Japanese media, Jong-nam said he had “no interest in succession and would live quietly.” Observers believe the statements were a message to Pyongyang that he was uninvolved in any political scheming.
Thereafter, however, Jong-nam reportedly began to belittle Jong-un, saying his brother is not Kim Jong-il’s legitimate son. While the North Korean line says Jong-un was born to Kim Jong-il’s late wife Ko Young-hee, Jong-nam allegedly said Jong-un was born out of wedlock to Kim Ok, his father’s common-law fourth wife.
The battle between the brothers seems to be favoring Kim Jong-un, but Kim Jong-nam has advocates like his uncle Jang and O Kuk-ryol, a senior leader in North Korea’s Defense Commission. Jang is currently the No. 2 person in Pyongyang, and his power could be increased by Ri’s death in a car accident last week. Jang has reportedly promised Kim Jong-il that he will support Jong-un as successor, but things could change very quickly if Kim Jong-il dies.
As Kim Jong-nam reportedly told a foreign diplomatic source last spring, “The next five years will be the key variable.”
By Ahn Sung-kyoo [firstname.lastname@example.org]