Archie Bland: The elder Kim who chose lifestyle over compromise

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The urge to hold power is so incomprehensible to those of us who aren't possessed of it.

I'm always at a loss as to why the likes of Mubarak and Gaddafi didn't just cash in their chips and head off for the luxury villas that surely could have been theirs; the only explanation can be that if you're the sort of person who wants to be in charge of things, that need never leaves you, and the more human concerns that would come first for the rest of us simply don't figure. And so they choose dismal, humiliating incarceration or death over a cheery teatime pina colada. Like I said: incomprehensible.

This is why Kim Jong Nam, the elder and more dissolute of the potential heirs to the North Korean autocracy, is so much more likeable than his po-faced little brother Un, who eventually got the gig when their father died. Once it seemed as if he might be given a country on a platter. But Kim Jong Nam turned it down in favour of a playboy lifestyle in Macao, abortive trips to Disneyland Tokyo under the alias "Fat Bear", and as much philandering as he could fit in. He also took to wearing an incredibly silly cap.

The guy is obviously not on the verge of finding a cure for cancer, it's true. But he's infinitely preferable to his sibling, now Supreme Leader. Lest you doubted it, consider the fascinating reports that emerged yesterday of Kim Jong Nam's seven-year email exchange with a Japanese journalist, in which he claimed that he fell out of favour because of his advocacy of political and economic reform.

Even within a regime as avowedly crackpot as that which has held power in North Korea – and even allowing for Kim Jong Nam's presumably incomplete version of events – it's unnerving to think that the mere expression of a critical view was enough to end the prohibitive favourite's chances at the top job. More disturbing still is the implication it carries about the man who did take charge: either too stupid or too craven or too desperate for power to say anything except for what his father wanted to hear.

I suppose, even if it's true that the authority he's gained is only superficial, his fellow dictators would understand intuitively. They get that it's better to have a whole share of almost nothing than a fraction of something worthwhile. The rest of us probably prefer Kim Jong Nam. He may have packed his son off to boarding school in Bosnia, and his drinking habits may have given him gout. But at least he had the nerve to tell his father he was wrong – even though it cost him a tiny world.