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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Kim Jong Un’s decision to launch a long-range missile on the eve of the Lunar New Year was the second time in his just over four-year reign that he has deliberately provoked Beijing on China’s most important holiday. In 2013 he set off a nuclear device on February 12, two days into Lunar New Year celebrations, sending highly irritated Chinese bureaucrats scrambling back to their desks in Beijing from family gatherings in their ancestral home towns. Now he has done it again. In a February 3 article entitled “North Korea’s rocket plans seen as disrespectful to China,” the Associated Press noted that “The timing couldn’t have appeared worse. North Korea announces it will launch a long-range rocket smack in the middle of a top Chinese envoy’s visit to Pyongyang. In diplomatic terms, it was yet another sign of disrespect for North Korea’s chief ally. Adding to the indignity: The launch window for the rocket, which critics say is a banned test of ballistic missile technology, falls during the Lunar New Year, casting a shadow over China’s most important seasonal holiday.”
The article was referring to the early February visit of China’s chief North Korea nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, who arrived on a mission to convince Pyongyang to forego the expected missile launch. Wu reportedly told reporters upon returning to Beijing empty-handed that he “said what had to be said, and did what was supposed to be done.” China had sent other clear signals to Pyongyang NOT to go forward with the recent missile launch. Beijing’s state organ the Global Times published an editorial at the end of January that warned that North Korea was “headed on a path of peril” and that if it continued to develop its nuclear arsenal it “should not expect China’s protection.” Kim Jong Un obviously spurned these admonitions.
The sight of a 30-something, narcissistic bully in Pyongyang thumbing his nose repeatedly at his elders in Beijing will certainly draw notice in Confucian Asia
From a practical point of view, Kim Jong Un’s shameless public displays of contempt for his sole major ally are difficult to explain. In July 2015 International Policy Digest reported, in an article titled “Strategic Alliance: China-North Korea,” that “North Korea is economically dependent on China for its basic necessities like energy and food, which dominate the trade between the two countries. China provided North Korea with 70 percent of its food and about 70-80 percent of the country’s fuel supplies.” But in a deeper cultural sense Kim’s humiliations of Beijing are even less comprehensible. Even before the Ten Commandments codified respect for one’s parents as a basic tenet of Western culture, the Sinocentric culture of East Asia had emphasized deference to one’s elders and mentors as the harmonious glue which holds the social order together. The sight of a 30-something, narcissistic bully in Pyongyang thumbing his nose repeatedly at his elders in Beijing will certainly draw notice in Confucian Asia from Singapore to Seoul and from Taipei to Tokyo. So what is China to do?
China’s ace-in-the-hole may be the proverbial prodigal elder son of the late Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam. Like a former claimant to the English throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Kim Jong Nam may be being kept in the wings for some as yet unexpected future contingency. And, like the Stuart pretender, Kim Jong Nam possesses the requisite pedigree via the Baekdu bloodline that would make him an ideologically acceptable alternative to Kim Jong Un.
Both biology and misbehavior played roles in Kim Jong Nam’s falling out with his father, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, when the time arrived to identify an heir apparent for the Kim dynasty. Kim Jong Nam’s mother, movie actress Song Hye Rim, had not been a favorite of his grandfather, the dynasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung. According to Bradley K. Martin in his 2004 work Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Kim Jong Nam’s father, Kim Jong Il, a self-acclaimed expert movie director, met his mother “in the 1960s, after he started hanging around at the studios” of the Pyongyang film industry. The fact that the actress was already married required securing a divorce and reportedly having her ex-husband sent abroad. Martin notes that “Kim Jong Il, according to Song’s nephew’s account, worried about the Great Leader’s (Kim Il Sung’s) reaction to the potentially scandalous situation he had gotten himself into.” Kim reportedly kept his mistress and their baby son, Kim Jong Nam, ensconced in a palatial mansion for a few years until his father handpicked Kim Yong Suk, the daughter of a high-ranking North Korean military officer, to be Kim Jong Il’s official wife. A number of Kim Jong Nam’s mother’s relatives further annoyed his father by subsequently defecting and engaging in tell-all interviews. One of them, a cousin of Kim Jong Nam, was gunned down by suspected North Korean agents in Seoul in 1997.
In the 1980s Kim Jong Il became involved with Ko Yong Hui, with whom he had a daughter and two sons, including current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam’s mother increasingly spent time abroad in Moscow, reportedly both for medical reasons and to curb any further scandalous rumors about her relationship with the Dear Leader. Kim Jong Nam was cared for as a child by his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was purged and killed by Kim Jong Un in 2013, and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, a daughter of Kim Il Sung, as the couple had no son and heir of their own. Jang reportedly maintained a relationship with his nephew even after Kim Jong Nam fell from favor and was removed as heir apparent, providing financially for him and his family in exile in Beijing and Macau.
Kim Jong Nam’s fall from grace is most often attributed to his arrest in May 2001 at Japan’s Narita Airport while attempting to enter the country on a forged Dominican Republic passport in order to take his son to Tokyo Disneyland. His subsequent deportation reportedly embarrassed his highly secretive father. Kim, however, has also reportedly engaged in other nefarious activities as well. Bradley Martin quoted a former captain in North Korean State Security as stating that in his early manhood “Kim Jong Nam drank heavily, went to the Koryo Hotel and shot the place up.”
US News and World Report, in a January 27, 2003 article titled “The Far East Sopranos,” reported the existence of a videotape showing Kim Jong Nam using counterfeit U.S $100 supernotes at a Macau casino. As a result of these bad boy activities, his father dropped him as heir in favor of his younger half-brother and sent him into exile.
At the time of the Kim Jong Un’s coming to power his brother Kim Jong Nam, “ostensibly under the protection of the Chinese government,” moved from Macau, which was considered too risky due to the presence of North Korean agents, to Singapore. Beijing was certainly aware of the potential security threat, noting South Korean news reports that “South Korean authorities indicted a North Korean agent for violating the National Security Law. Prosecutors said Kim Yong Su had been ordered by the North Korean regime to travel to China in July 2010 to kidnap Kim Jong Nam.” Further, he and his student son, Kim Han Sol, went into hiding after Jang Song Thaek’s purge in 2013, with the Independent reporting on December 18, 2013 that “the teenager was chaperoned to his dormitory by French police officers.” Kim Han Sol had previously referred to his uncle Kim Jong Un as “a dictator” in a public interview with Finnish television. (The college student also represents the only known fourth-generation male heir to the Kim dynasty as Dennis Rodman, after his North Korean visits with Kim Jong Un in 2013, revealed to the world that the current leader only has a baby daughter).
Kim Jong Nam … has voiced criticisms of his younger brother
Kim Jong Nam, despite a globetrotting playboy image which has seen him periodically surface in Southeast Asian watering holes in Indonesia and Malaysia, has voiced criticisms of his younger brother similar to those espoused by his own student son. Kim Jong Nam reportedly emailed a Japanese journalist in 2012 a prediction that “the Kim Jong Un regime will not last long.” He has also voiced support for economic restructuring, stating that “without reforms, North Korea will collapse,” which would be music to the ears of the leadership in Beijing. Kim Jong Nam’s close familial ties to his purged uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was widely seen as Beijing’s point man in Pyongyang, would also likely earn him kudos among the Chinese leadership facing a quandary of what to do about North Korea. The question is how to preserve a reliable buffer state against American influence in South Korea while curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs which increasingly threaten regional stability. Kim Jong Nam, despite his bad boy image, would likely prove far more pliant than his disagreeable and defiant little brother.
So where is the prodigal son? In a gilded cage in Southeast Asia surrounded by Chinese body guards? The Daily Mail reported in July 2015 that Kim Jong Un had given his errant half-brother a DPRK foreign ministry post working on Japanese affairs apparently on the theory of “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”
Bringing Kim Jong Nam back into North Korea as part of a palace coup would be a risky business for Beijing and could have unintended consequences. The Kaiser’s secret police successfully smuggled the revolutionary Lenin and a pile of gold in a boxcar from Switzerland to Sweden to help trigger the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the Great War. But just over a quarter-century later Lenin’s Soviet military successors marched into Berlin and divided Germany. The question is: At what point does Kim Jong Un become so belligerent and unpredictable that a bold move to remove him seems the only viable option left? If Kim Jong Nam is indeed again working with the North Korean bureaucracy and military in some new diplomatic role he may be able to forge ties which would prove useful in an unforeseen contingency. And with Kim Jong Un removed and his more pliable brother in his place, Beijing could re-build its highly successful but recently frayed diplomatic ties with Seoul. Xi Jinping could then seek to entice South Korea with the holy grail of a confederated Korea under Seoul’s influence in exchange for a reduction of American military and diplomatic influence on the peninsula.
And the prodigal son could be the one to make all this happen.