Kim Jong Nam: Prodigal Son or Chinese Ally?

By | February 11, 2012 | No Comments

The righteously false storm of Kim Jong Un death rumors which passed over the Chinese Internet yesterday make today’s essay particularly relevant.  How safe are the Kim sons in Beijing? How factionalized, in fact, is the Kim family? What are the current dynamics between Kim Jong Nam and the Chinese state?  Is Kim Jong Nam China’s prefered face of North Korean reform and opening up? And what does all of this suggest about the future (really, the multiple futures) of the Korean peninsula?  Nick Miller takes on these questions in a new post. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Kim Jong Nam: Prodigal Son or Chinese Ally?

by Nick Miller

A ruler who carries the oppression of his people to the highest pitch, will himself be slain, and his kingdom will perish. If one stop short of the highest pitch, his life will notwithstanding be in danger, and his kingdom will be weakened. He will be styled “The Dark,” or “The Cruel,” and though he may have filial sons and affectionate grandsons, they will not be able in a hundred generations to change the designation. – Mencius[1]

Kim Jong Nam, left, with journalist Yoji Gomi; image courtesy Nanfang Zhoumo 南方周末

Kim Jong Nam and the PRC |  The curious case of Kim Jong Nam’s downfall from likely successor to prodigal son in exile has puzzled many North Korean analysts. Kim Jong Nam has been residing in China since his exile in 2001 with homes in both Macau and Beijing. Throughout his series of interviews his series of interviews with Kim Jong Nam, Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi asserted his belief that China allowed Kim Jong Nam to stay in the PRC, as his presence provides the Chinese Communist Party with a trump card that could be used in future negotiations with North Korea.[2] As Scott Snyder has pointed out, Kim Jong Nam’s comments — such as the remarks about reforming the North Korean economy or critiques of his father’s succession plans — put the CCP in a very delicate situation: the Chinese government must continue to shield him from North Korean agents while simultaneously maintaining good relations with the new DPRK regime and, most importantly, prevent their ally from collapsing.[3] Jong Nam’s support of economic reforms is music to the ears of the Politburo in Beijing, but Pyongyang ‘s response still remains unclear, as to whether Kim Jong Un’s apparent deliberateness with enacting economic reforms can only increase the frustration amongst Chinese policymakers.[4]

Surveillance and Safety | Yoji Gomi stated that Jong Nam believed he was under constant surveillance by the Chinese government. The journalist, however, was unsure whether the surveillance was for Kim’s protection or if he was actually seen as a person of concern to the Ministry of State Security (MSS).  In 2009 reports emerged, citing Chinese government sources, that Kim Jong Un had prepared an assassination attempt by North Korean agents, against his older brother.  Reports also asserted that past aides of Kim Jong Nam in North Korea were purged, and that the attacks were possibly done without the knowledge of Kim Jong Il. The plot was foiled by the Chinese intelligence services that alerted North Korea to this attempt. It is suspected that China allows Kim Jong Nam asylum because the friendships Jong Nam had with high-ranking Chinese officials.[5]

When important family members are purged in North Korea exile, rather than execution, is a more common event. Two examples pertain here: First, that of O Kuk-ryol, Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK, whose family’s revolutionary credentials go back to Kim Il Sung’s guerilla campaign.  O has seen his seen his own influence begin to falter under Kim Jong Un’s leadership. While one of his sons, O Se Won, seems to be rising influence within Kim Jong Un’s camp, the other, O Se Uk, defected to the United States in 2004. The family, for whatever reason, escaped the usual punishment that is carried out for defectors.[6] Second – and much closer to the question of hereditary succession to the apex of power in the DPRK – is that of Kim Pyong-il, Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, who was assigned to diplomatic positions in Europe (currently Ambassador to Poland) to prevent him from becoming a threat to Kim Jong Il.[7]

Kim Pyong-il with Son and Daughter in Poland; image courtesy DailyNK/Nicolas Levi

What’s in it for China? | Looking at China’s evident protection of Kim Jong Nam, it may be useful to interpret the gesture as either stemming from the historical relationship between the two states or as a necessary link between Beijing and the North Korean ruling elite. However, while it is quite apparent that Kim Jong Nam has important friends within the Great Hall of the People, the question of how regular his communication truly is with his uncle Jang Song-taek and aunt Kim Kyong-hui is completely up in the air. Jang Song-taek, recall, is considered to be a reformer within North Korean politics and may have been purged in the early 2000s because of his support of Kim Jong Nam and his call for economic reform.

Dr. Jiyoung Song, a North Korean expert at National University of Singapore, stated that while the Chinese government cannot openly support Kim Jong Nam it continues to allow him to speak freely and reside in China to serve as an alternative to Kim Jong Un.[8]Kim Jong Nam, though, has stated he has no interest in running North Korea and while China desires stability within Korean peninsula it is more likely that the Chinese leadership will focus on maintaining a strong relationship with Jang Song-Taek and his wife Kim Kyong-hee in hopes they are able to succeed in getting Kim Jong Un to enact economic reforms. It seems unlikely that China would be able to or interested in purely “installing” Kim Jong Nam as the next leader in North Korea, as that would violate its past policies of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. It remains to be seen if the new regime will be receptive to Chinese-style reforms, but only time will tell if Kim Jong Nam’s pessimistic predictions on the future of North Korea will come true or the elites will allow such reform to be enacted to save the regime.

[1] Mencius, The Works of Mencius, Columbia University Press, New York, 2009, p. 73

[2] Julian Ryall, “China ‘protecting Kim Jong-Nam’,” Telegraph, January, 24, 2012., accessed January 31, 2012.

[3] Scott Snyder, “Kim Jong-un’s Dangerous Brother,” The Diplomat, January 22, 2012., accessed February 1, 2012.  See also “Kim Jong-un’s brother says North Korea heading for collapse,” Telegraph, January 17, 2012., accessed January 31, 2012.

[4] Nicholas Miller, “The Guardians of Kim Jong-Un,” The Diplomat, December 30, 2011., accessed February 1, 2012.

[5] “N. Korean Heir Apparent Linked to Assassination Plot,” The Chosun Ilbo, May 16, 2009., accessed February 3, 2012.

[6] For a more in-depth look, see Nicolas Levi’s “O Kuk Ryol: The Old Guard Never Dies,”, February 1, 2012.

[7] Scott Snyder, “Kim Jong-un’s Dangerous Brother.”

[8] Wyatt Olson, “Kim Jong Il didn’t favor family succession to power, exiled son told author,” Stars and Stripes, January 26, 2012., accessed February 3, 2012.

No Comments

  1. I am reading Gomi’s book right now in Japanese. It is interesting that much of the best North Korean humint gets published in Japanese first, whether by Zainichi sources or sushi chefs.

  2. Great, please share! And I share your excitement about Japanese sources (particularly those that surpass those of sushi chefs).

  3. China is just keeping its options open by ‘protecting’ Kim Jong Nam. The Chinese have supported the Kim Jong Un succession, but they cannot be sure what may happen in the future, so keep lines of communication open to Kim Jong Nam just in case – admittedly unlikely – he gets called back into an evolving situation in Pyongyang (even though he has decried such a role for the moment) makes sense. The more sophisticated Chinese approach to these types of situations in recent years was paralleled by talking ‘unofficially’ with the Burmese opposition while still maintaining strong links with the Burmese generals.

  4. NK Leadership and especially Kim Jong Il’s family are topics which are often based on various (true/false) assumptions. Considering these issues, we should try to present various scenarios.

    Nicolas Levi

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