Every family has its black sheep but few families are as shrouded in myth as the reclusive Kim regime of North Korea. Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-il, famously left the family fold and apparently spends much of his time in the Chinese gambling resort of Macao. Until this month, he was known mainly for a bizarre clandestine attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001. He used a fake passport and Chinese alias that translates as "fat bear" – a stunt that reportedly embarrassed his father and ended any chance of succeeding him.
Now, Kim Jong-nam has offered a rare glimpse behind the family curtain in an extraordinary book – My Father, Kim Jong-Il, and Me, published by Bungei Shunju – in which he reveals his love for his "tender-hearted" father, his fears for North Korea's future, and his father's doubts about handing power to his youngest son and Kim Jong-nam's half-brother, Kim Jong-un.
"My father was more opposed to the third-generation hereditary succession than anybody and there must have been internal factors that forced him to change his view," he says. Kim Jong-nam warns that the succession risks making his country a "laughing stock".
"I doubt that a young hereditary successor, with only two years' political training, can take over [a system of] absolute power that has lasted 37 years." He added that power brokers would likely monopolise power behind the scenes, using his half-brother "as a symbol".
Penned by Tokyo-based journalist Yoji Gomi, the book is based on more than 150 email exchanges and seven hours of interviews since the two men met by chance in 2004.
But the family black sheep says he never wanted power and denies that his trip to Disneyland cost him the chance: "It was not a life-changing event." He added that it was "common" for the Pyongyang élite to travel with forged passports.
On reforms to open up North Korea
Kim Jong-nam writes: "Reforms and an open-door policy are necessary to make the nation rich. But normalisation of US-North Korean ties is a prerequisite for such policies. It's difficult to expect North Korea to reform and take an open-door policy.
"[So] there is little possibility that North Korea will give up its nuclear programme, because national strength lies with its nuclear capability."
On his relationship with his father
"My father really missed me after I moved to Geneva, Switzerland [where he spent eight years studying] and I myself cried when I left him. I think he felt lonely when I left. But the target of his love moved from me to my half-brothers and -sister, who were born after I left. My father seemed to become more cautious about me as I grew up and became, to him, a little capitalist... I grew further apart from him because I insisted on reform and market-opening and was eventually viewed with suspicion."
Kim Jong-nam says he heard that his "corruption" and Westernisation after such a long stay abroad was why his siblings were allowed much shorter stays overseas and had limited access to local friends. But he stayed in close contact with his father and believes his father continued to love him.
"I believe his love never changed... Kim Jong-il is strict, but has a tender heart. He cares about North Korea's future very much and he himself must feel frustrated that things are not exactly going well. The people who are around him do not have enough skills and experiences. My father's image is being harmed by those who speak only soft words."
Kim Jong-Nam's message to his brother
Kim Jong-nam said he has never met his half-brother, Kim Jong-un. They never lived in the same place, and he is in no position to comment on his half-brother's personality or fitness for the job of leader. But asked to give a message to his brother during an interview in January 2011, he had this to say.
"Without reforms, North Korea will collapse, and when such changes take place, the regime will collapse... I think we will see valuable time lost as the regime sits idle, fretting over whether it should pursue reforms or stick to the present political structure... I want my brother to make the people prosperous. I am saying this from the bottom of my heart. I want to believe that my brother is a person who is capable of understanding my true beliefs. If he misunderstands my words, or has negative feelings toward them, that means he does not have the capacity to do that and I will feel disappointed."
Kim Jong-Nam's political ambition/his relationships with his father
Asked whether his father ever told him to succeed his post as the national leader, Kim Jong-nam wrote in December 2010 that he was then still favoured by his father as the eldest son, but he had never been on the list of his successors. "Since my father was more opposed to the idea of the hereditary succession than anybody else, any discussions of a successor were seen as taboo" – until Kim Jong-un came into the picture. Kim Jong-nam said he has no wish to rule the country since he does not think he could bear the role, nor does he have the confidence. He wrote: "Even if some people expect me to, I do not wish to destroy my own life to satisfy the expectations of others."
- More about:
- Kim Jong-il