The real North Korea by Kim's forsaken son
When Kim Jong-il's presumed heir was shunned, his life changed forever. David McNeill sifts exclusive extracts from a new book that explains why he believes his half-brother's fledgling reign is doomed
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 Macau. 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 he had of becoming leader.
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, the Chinese spies who watch and protect him 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 said. "But the North Korean people are so used to obeying orders solely based on their belief in bloodline of [North Korea's founder] Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that they may have trouble accepting any successor outside of that bloodline." Kim Jong-Nam warns that the succession risks making his country a "laughing stock".
Penned by the 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. Kim Jong-nam abruptly cut off exchanges soon afterwards but later re-established contact and began a long correspondence that intensified in October 2010, a month after his half-brother made his public debut as Kim Jong-il's heir apparent at a conference of the Workers' Party of North Korea. In a message on 22 October 2010, Kim Jong-nam agrees to answer Gomi's questions on condition that the book's publication coincides with the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il's decision to anoint Kim Jong-un successor.
"Nobody with common sense could agree to a third-generation hereditary succession," he wrote on 3 January 2012, shortly after his father's funeral, adding that he opposed it. "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 North Korea's behind-the-scenes powerbrokers would likely monopolise power behind the scenes, using his half-brother "as a symbol".
But the family's black sheep said 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. "I went to Japan many times to go to famous hotels and restaurants in Tokyo. Kim Jong-un also went to Japan with a fake Brazilian passport."
On the people who rule North Korea
In November 2010, Kim Jong-nam wrote that his heart "aches" to "see or hear about the way people live in North Korea". He wonders how many of those who support his father or his successor really care for the well-being of ordinary North Koreans. "Not too many, it seems... some officials are smooth-talking just for the sake of their own survival, or others are betraying politics and putting up barriers between the people and the leadership because they are seeking only their own pleasure. I want these people to disappear. I don't think they are useful at all to the development of North Korea or the future of the successor."
Kim Jong-nam is careful throughout the book to say that he has nothing to do with North Korean politics and is in no position to comment on or influence the country. But "common sense" tells him that reforms and an open-door policy are vital for his country to achieve economic growth, after living in China for so long and seeing its explosive economic growth up close. He said China does not welcome hereditary rule but "understands it in support of North Korea's stability".
"I am being either watched or protected by the Chinese government, a fate that I cannot avoid... but I don't have particular personal ties with Chinese government officials. China protects us because we are the family of the leader of its neighbour, not because the Chinese government considers me the next leader."
On reforms to open up North Korea
Kim Jong-nam wrote: "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." In an interview with Gomi in Macau in January 2011, he said the North fears that reform may lead to internal political collapse. "What North Korea wants most is normalisation of its ties with the United States. It will then deal with stabilising the Korea peninsula and take measures to rebuild its economy. Right now, tensions with the United States and South Korea are too severe. 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... it is not easy for a nation like North Korea, located in a geopolitically sensitive area and struggling to survive, to abandon 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 said 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 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 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."
He also said he believes their father chose him to be his successor, despite his youth, because he has the ability to bring prosperity to his people. Asked about his view on Kim Jong-un's lack of experience, Kim Jong-nam said: "Everybody begins with a lack of experience, so he only needs to accumulate it." He said the number of people who oppose the hereditary successor will decrease if Kim Jong-un tries hard to bring affluence to the nation and his efforts bring good results.
Kim Jong-nam's political ambition and 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 has never been on the list of 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 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."
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