More Data on the North Korean Succession Struggles

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North Korea / Sino-North Korean relations

Struggles for royal succession have never been entirely clear, even in the morally-charged world and post-facto world of the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian.  This past summer, a number of developments were asserted regarding North Korea’s next generation of leadership, mostly surrounding speculation about the youngest son of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong-un.  Earlier, I translated some new German sources about the boy’s time as a kind of hostage-prince in Europe, and took apart a Daily NK article about the “young general,” filling in some gaps via the Chinese version.

Today, in cleaning out my summer notebooks, I found that I had some information about an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam which I had yet to share.  Although this is, in my view, probably more conjectural and tabloid-style news than anything else, I would encourage readers to leave comments if they have additional links or information about the story.  The original piece of news that got this story rolling is here on KBS.

Michel Temman [in Tokyo], “Corée du Nord: Le Kim était presque parfait: Le fils aîne du dictateur nord-coréen, Kim Jong-il, aurait été victime du’une tentative d’assassinat à Macao.  A la tête de l’operation, son jeune frère, appelé à diriger le pays,” Liberation, 19 June 2009, p. 6.  [North Korea: Kim is Almost Perfect: The Eldest Son of the North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il is Almost Victim of an Assassination Attempt in Macao.  At the head of the operation, his younger brother, named leader of the state."] — Translation by Adam Cathcart.

At the beginning of last week, Kim Jong-nam, 38, eldest son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, escaped an assassination attempt in Macao – where he has lived part-time since 2007. The information was revealed Monday by the South Korean television station KBS, quoting “Chinese government sources.”  For the moment [pour l'heure], little information has filtered through regarding the manner in which the plot was mounted and how it went down [déjoué].

According to KBS, the sponsor of this attempted assassination is none other than Kim Jong-un, 26, the half brother of Kim Jong-nam, described by the South Korean website Daily NK as “the new strong man of Pyongyang.”  According to the cited Chinese officials, the authors of the failed assassination attempt are none other than “henchmen” [hommes de main] of Kim Jong-un. Another thing seems sure: the assassination was to be conducted in two stages. “Supporters” of Kim Jong-nam in the government in Pyongyang would first be eliminated. Then, the plan was to bring Kim Jong-nam [to Pyongyang] in an ambush to assassinate him. The plot was foiled in time by Beijing, which has long cultivated good relations with Kim Jong-nam. According to KBS, “the Chinese government has warned [mis en garde] North Korea, informed them that they had put an end to the assassination attempt, and sent agents and military officers to Macao who have taken Kim Jong-nam to a safe place.”

But why would Kim Jong-un seek to have the skin [cherché à avoir la peau] of his elder brother?  His escapades, provocations and repeated gaffes exasperate the “Dear Leader”. They also seem to annoy the little brother and new “leader” of the regime. In recent months, Kim Jong-nam has increased his travels to Asia and Europe. [Note: Like his younger brother, Kim Jong-nam is said to be fluent in French as well as English.  I also cut the short section of the article dealing with Jong-nam’s Disneyland debacle.]

Without regard to the possible imposition of instructions of silence, he gave interviews to reporters who followed, harassed, and wedged him into a street or the lobby of an airport.  In many YouTube videos, the pudgy Kim Jong-nam, almost trendy with his sunglasses and his wool cap, in denim or clad in ivory, spins through a series of possible categories: increasingly, he resembles a businessman in a hurry, or a lonely tourist, or a casual geek, or, perhaps most of all, a late-blooming adolescent.  In front of the cameras, one can see him responding without aggression in his voice, with a semblance of sincerity that is disconcerting.

[Note: ROK Drop has a marvelous compendium of images that dovetail perfectly with the above paragraph, including links to the relevant interviews in English.  I have omitted further discussion in the present article of Jong-nam's October 2008 interview in Paris with the Japanese Fuji TV channel and subsequent interviews with NHK and TV Asahi.]

Purges. Then came the final declaration, a step too far, last March 30.  On that day, Kim Jong-nam met with another Fuji TV reporter who had been watching him and succeeded (twice in the same day!) to snatch a few words in the hallways of Beijing International Airport and Macau.  Here, Jong-nam bluntly labeled as “justified” the Japanese reaction – which included putting armies on alert and action at the UN – in response to the imminent test of a ballistic missile North Korea.  For Pyongyang, this was too much.

When he studied in Bern Switzerland in the 90s, Kim Jong-un was presented by his teachers as “reserved” and “calm” – he learned English, German and French under the name Pak Chol.  Today, he is described by a South Korean expert in Seoul to be suffering from “the same grain of madness does his dictatorial father.” Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung were experts in political machinations, palace intrigues, bloody purges and assassinations. In Pyongyang, at each succession of power, “rivals and ‘uncertain elements’ are removed or eliminated,” says the South Korean researcher Oh Kong-dan. When Kim Jong-il rose in rank [prit du grade], his half-brothers and sisters were murdered.

[Note:  Sorry to interrupt the flow, but the bold text above has just wonderful texture in the original: “Kim Jong-il et son père Kim Il-sung étaient experts en machinations politiques, intrigues de palais, purges sanglantes, et assassinats ciblés.”  Perhaps this kind of conspiratorial mentalite is respected more in the Quai d’Orsay than it is in transparent Foggy Bottom.]

And now he, Kim Jong-un,  has indeed been dubbed as successor to Kim Jong-il.

According to the secret service in South Korea, North Korea has even in recent weeks sent telegrams to its embassies abroad to confirm the appointment and require its diplomats to rend “allegiance” to Jong-un.  Along with his father, “The Great Sun of the 21st century,” Kim Jong-un is now considered “the Star of the 21st century in North Korea.”

But the apparent coup attempt which twisted and failed this week could also cost him dearly.  Because the Chinese are persuaded: he would have acted without the approval of his father, Kim Jong-il. The Chinese government is completely furious [en tout cas furieux] at this attempted murder fomented on its territory, and has promised to “punish” the North Korean regime by canceling contracts for economic cooperation in this full “Year of Sino-North Korean Friendship.”

*****

lKim Jong-nam in Paris on 27 October 2008 arranging for a neurosurgeon to fy to Pyongyang for his father -- filial piety in action -- click picture for link

lKim Jong-nam in Paris on 27 October 2008 arranging for a neurosurgeon to fy to Pyongyang for his father -- filial piety in action -- click picture for link

Suggestions for further reading: In June, the ROK Drop blog was on this story immediately, but it is the same stalwart blog’s 2006 analysis of Kim Jong-nam and the China connection is in some ways even more revealing.

It might also bear noting that the “Kim Jong-un tries to kill his older brother” plotline has already been run through by international media at least once.  Choson Ilbo reported in December 2004 on another alleged assassination attempt of Kim Jong-nam on Austrian territory.

This April 2007 Marine Corps report from Quantico, Virginia, is a useful compendium of about 25 open-source documents on the North Korean succession issue.  Kongdan Oh has a short but nifty editorial on the issue on the Brookings Institution website.

NK Economy Watch has an informative takedown of posters hailing Kim Jong-eun as successor, with photos and links to Chosun Ilbo.

“Gypsy Scholar” Jeffrey Hodges provides some blogger-style gust for our pre-finale:

I’ll wait for some other confirmation before I believe this. But the rumor alone is blogworthy, and if it turns out to be untrue, I’ll nevertheless be proud to have done my part in a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining North Korea’s odious nomenklatura.

And just to get into the act, let’s amuse ourselves by imagining not only that there was an assassination attempt but that it also got just a little bit closer than has been reported, namely, that the aides actually reached Macau and managed to fire off a few shots at Kim Jong-nam, but missed, and that an exasperated young Kim Jong-un is even now confronting his aides in disbelief:

“You missed? You missed Kim Jong-nam? How could you possibly miss hitting Kim Jong-nam?”Missing an ample target like that would be hard to picture.

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-nam, seated, at the beginning of the Reagan Presidency (1981) -- click for link to Sept 9 2009 Globe and Mail story

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-nam, seated, at the beginning of the Reagan Presidency (1981) -- click for link to Sept 9 2009 Globe and Mail story

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.

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