A South Korean national who claims to have known Kim Jong Nam, the murdered half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, spoke to NK News on Friday, sharing memories of a more than decade-long friendship with Kim.
Anxious of the possibility that North Korean spies were attempting to learn the whereabouts of Kim Jong Nam’s family, the source agreed to speak on the condition that no questions would be asked related to his wife or sons.
“He wanted to live an ordinary life, just like you: free from media attention,” Lee Dong-seop told NK News.
Lee has lived in Macau for more than 30 years, and for the last 27 years he served as president of the association of Korean residents in the Chinese city-state.
His friendship with Kim Jong Nam was already well known to the South Korean media. In 2012, he talked to Chosun Ilbo about Kim, who at the time had disappeared from the public eye.
During the initial phase of the phone call with NK News, Lee declined to talk as he was worried that “every reporter that contacting me” sounded like “Kim Jong Un’s minions.”
“Every reporter here is poking questions about where Kim’s family is. What for? To kill Han-sol (Kim Jong Nam’s eldest son)? Is that what you are after too?” Lee asked.
“The family is in a bitter grief, so stop poking questions about them. That (media attention) is why Kim Jong Nam died in the first place.”
Lee said he first met Kim as a “drinking buddy” more than a decade ago, when he was running a Korean restaurant in Macau.
“Macau society is minuscule, it is only the size of the Gangnam district, Seoul, and has the population of just 130,000. Kim was my neighbor who I would meet on the street from time to time, and he was very friendly.”
Kim came to his restaurant, where he sat down and asked for a bottle of Soju to share with Lee. Kim Jong Nam enjoyed drinking, Lee said, and usually drank several bottles.
Kim Jong Nam, who used the alias Kim Chol, also had an English name: John.
“Wouldn’t you have an English name if you lived abroad? Just about everyone in Macau has an English name, and so do I,” Lee said.
During regular drinking with Kim, which Lee told South Korea’s Hankook Ilbo he had done over a hundred times, Lee said Kim liked to talk about what “ordinary people” would talk about.
“He talked about the South Korean TV drama he watched. He said he enjoyed ‘The Moon Embracing the Sun,’” Lee said, referring to a popular South Korean show from 2012.
“He watched just about all of the South Korean TV drama that was in a historical setting, he told me.”
“Kim also asked me about which South Korean TV show was popular, or he would suggest what I watch one. ‘Such a great acting!’ he said, after watching one show.”
However, there were two topics that Kim never shared with Lee.
“We used to talk about everything, except politics and religion. I mean, there was nothing particular, we would talk about things like ‘hey what’s up’ ‘how are you doing?’ ‘where have you been’ and ‘hey let’s drink.’”
Kim, according to Lee, was a thoughtful and emotional person, who wanted to live a “normal life”, and Lee repeatedly spoke of how ordinary Kim seemed.
“A very ordinary being, emotional, good-hearted, humane. Kim would shed tears when he saw something emotional or a sad movie, and he could sympathize with others’ suffering as well. He always spoke how happy he was.”
“All he wanted was to live an ordinary life, but the reporters and media would blabber about ‘oh he is a royal blood’ ‘oh he is Baekdu Bloodline,’” Lee spoke in an angry voice.
“Do you think that makes sense at all? Kim lived in Russia since he was six, and saw his grandfather (Kim Il Sung) only once, do you think he had any chance of becoming the North Korean leader?”
Kim Jong Nam was the eldest son of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il and his mistress, the actress Song Hye Rim. He was, for almost a decade, seen as next in line for the country’s leadership.
But he was believed to fallen out of favor with his father in 2001 after a widely publicized incident in which he tried to enter Japan using a fake passport, purportedly so he could visit Tokyo Disneyland with his family. In his place, his half-brother Kim Jong Un rose to power.
“Kim’s mother, Song Hye Rim was not even Kim Jong Il’s legal wife,” Lee continued. “Song was already married at that time, but Kim Jong Il made her divorce her husband, and lived with her and had Kim Jong Nam later. Do you think he, with the background like this, could be a ‘direct heir’ to North Korea?”
Lee called his old friend an “unfortunate prince” whose life was wrongfully portrayed by media all the time, adding he lived in Macau based on a hope to live in peace, with his family, as a father.
“The last time when I saw him was at the end of December last year, we also drank Soju that day. He was a free man and always talked about how happy he was,” Lee said.
*Lee also confirmed once again that the Facebook account that was under name Kim Chol did belong to Kim Jong Nam. As of Friday, the account has been deactivated.
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