About the Author
View more articles by Kim Yoo-sung
Kim Yoo-sung is an Ask a North Korean contributor who left Gil-joo County of Hamkyungbuk-do, DPRK in 2005
Every week, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
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Today’s question is: Kim Jong Nam was recently assassinated. Did you have any knowledge of him when you were in North Korea? Was Kim Jong Nam well known in North Korea?
Kim Jong Nam was born as the first son of Kim Jong Il and Sung Hye-rim on May 10th, 1971. During the 1980’s, Jong Nam studied in Moscow and Switzerland. Because he studied abroad, he was fluent in English and French.
Furthermore, he was supposedly open-minded and in favor of opening the North Korean economy to the outside world. Jong Nam was smart and intelligent and the North Korean regime knew it when they bestowed a General’s medal onto him in 1995.
People speculated that there was a high chance of Kim Jong Nam succeeding his father as the leader of the DPRK. Yet, he is believed to have lost his position within the regime and the party when his aunt, Hye-rang, defected to America in 1996. To make it even worse, he had voiced his opinion that North Korea should follow in the footsteps of China and introduce capitalism.
In April of 2001, he was caught trying to enter Japan with Dominican passport. This sequence of events hampered his rise within the regime. Of course, he lost his fathers’ trust and Kim Jong Il became deeply disappointed with him. In 2012, while living in exile, Jong Nam publically spoke out against the three-generation hereditary succession of North Korea.
When I was in North Korea, I had absolutely no knowledge of Kim Jong Nam. I didn’t even know he existed. I knew that Kim Jong Il had a half brother named Kim Pyong Il, but I didn’t know about the existence of Kim Jong Nam. Only after arriving in South Korea did I learn about the genealogy of the Kim family and their embarrassing family history.
While learning about the Kim family, the existence of Kim Jong Nam was the most interesting and intriguing to me. Kim Jong Nam is a viable, legitimate descendant of the founding father of North Korea: if Kim Jong Un died unexpectedly, Kim Jong Nam was the person who could have replaced him. Most people would have found it legitimate and acceptable if Kim Jong Nam succeeded Kim Jong Un.
Recently, Kim Jong Nam was assassinated by agents believed to have received orders from Kim Jong Un. When the news hit the newsstands, television, and the Internet, I’m sure North Korean defectors all over the world found themselves in shock. I was quite shocked myself to hear of the news. I wished that it wasn’t true.
I felt so sorry for Kim Jong Nam as he was just like us: one of many North Koreans living scattered all over the world, even if he never officially defected. I always empathized with Jong Nam. More importantly, I always thought that he could replace Kim Jong Un.
I can tell you that 99% of ordinary people in North Korea knew nothing about Kim Jong Nam. Unless you’re one of the top elites, you don’t have any knowledge of the family background of the Leader.
The masses of North Korea don’t know about him, or even how many siblings Kim Jong Un has, and they don’t know how many wives Kim Jong Il had. People vaguely know that Kim Il Sung had a wife named Kim Song Ae – that’s about it.
I can only assume that the regime didn’t want its people to know about the family background of the Kim family was because they think it’s embarrassing. When I was living in North Korea, party officials told us that we should not try to know about the family background of the Kim family. Now that I think about it, I believe that they didn’t want anything getting in the way of the deifying of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
If Kim Jong Nam became the leader of North Korea instead of Kim Jong Un, life would’ve gotten a lot better for the ordinary people of North Korea. Kim Jong Nam was in favor of opening North Korean society to the outside world and I believe that he would’ve been a better leader for North Korea.
I just wish that the news wasn’t true. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who thought and spoke highly of Jong Nam.
About 500 years ago, during the days of the Chosun Dynasty, Lee Bang-won, the third king of the Lee family, killed his brothers. How is Kim Jong Un any different from Lee Bang-won? History repeats itself.
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Featured image by Adam Westerman