The appearance on YouTube last week of the son of the murdered Kim Jong-nam has sparked speculation that the young man may be next on Pyongyang’s hit list.
The theory goes that his uncle and current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will see the young man as a potential threat to his rule and in need of elimination, just like his father was assassinated in Malaysia last month.
Let’s hope the 23-year-old Kim Han-sol is smart enough to realize that his country doesn’t need a fourth-generation in the Kim dynasty.
Meantime, the threat to his life seems real enough, according to Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK before he defected in London last year.
Kim Han-sol “is a being that cannot be tolerated from the perspective of Kim Jong-un,” Thae said in an interview with Japanese reporters.
According to an account by South Korea’s Yonhap agency, Thae said that Kim Jong-nam’s murder on February 13 at Kuala Lumpur airport happened because of “Kim Jong-un’s desire to solidify his legitimacy as the leader.”
“Kim Jong-nam had been the biggest obstacle for Chairman Kim’s pursuit of long-term power in North Korean society heavily influenced by Confucian culture,” Thae told the Japanese reporters – and Kim Han-sol likewise represents such an obstacle.
Perhaps that’s why in the YouTube video Kim Han-sol says he is with his mother and sister, but gives no indication of where they are.
Since he’s an articulate young man, outspoken like his slain father, Kim Han-sol at first glance might indeed seem a convincing North Korea dauphin. Forget that.
True, he’s grown up mostly abroad and his in-country family support network is pretty much gone. Not only is his father dead, Kim Jong-un executed his great uncle, Jang Song-taek. The influence of the latter’s widow, Kim Kyong-hui, is probably a thing of the past.
It seems clear that any hint of a possible threat to his power is enough to set Kim Jong-un off on one of his bloody purges, using the North Korean security apparatus to discover and root out any such threat.
So what of other relatives? Kim Han-sol’s other great uncle is Kim Pyong-il, half-brother of the late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. It wouldn’t be surprising if Pyong-il is now in danger, despite his decades of lying low and keeping his mouth shut as an ambassador in Eastern Europe.
The Dear Leader Kim Jong-il had three sons that are known about — the oldest and now dead Kim Jong-nam and the youngest and current ruler Kim Jong-un.
That leaves middle son Kim Jong-chol, who is thought to be living in North Korea and is mostly known for being a rock guitarist and a fan of Eric Clapton.
Analysts note that he could be seen as a threat as he and his younger brother were reportedly given the same higher education and tutoring in how to run the state and the military.
Of course, we now know that the youngest son Kim Jong-un, the meanest and most aggressive of the three, was chosen by the Dear Leader and his surviving elder brother and Clapton fan has shown no reported sign of wishing to challenge that decision.
I’m not privy to Kim Han-sol’s thinking on whether he should seek to take on either a real or figurehead leadership role in North Korea or what advisors may be telling him, but I’d argue against it.
First off, most North Koreans would have no idea who he is. More importantly, even if his lineage became well known in North Korea, that may not translate into support.
There are no polls, but there’s plenty of evidence that a great many North Koreans have stopped believing the Kim family name carries with it a guarantee of good governance. Huge numbers became privately alienated during the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il, under whose watch the economy almost totally collapsed.
Thus we have seen Kim Jong-un’s often comical (see the haircut) attempts to identify himself and his rule with his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who managed to feed the people up until about the time Kim Jong-il took day-to-day charge of the regime.
That branding may make some near-term sense, but more North Koreans are coming to realize that the policy failures under Kim Jong-il were the inevitable failures of the founder’s policies.
Neither Kim successor has come even close to breaking loose from the legacy of the dynastic founder. The results can be seen in a country whose government clearly cares more about militaristic advances than the people’s welfare.
Arguably a non-Kim would be a more promising leader of any active resistance movement and of a new government. China was fortunate when Mao Zedong’s son was killed in the Korean War. Otherwise there might have been a Mao dynasty and prolongation of the ruinous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Instead we saw the rise of Deng Xiaoping, the reformer.
North Koreans would be wise to abolish the Kim throne and shift to a more meritocratic if not democratic method of picking leaders. Increasingly they will realize this.
That said, Koreans North or South tend to be patriarchal, perhaps the most Confucian of all East Asians. Reportedly there are “government in exile” types who were hoping to use the now assassinated Kim Jong-nam as their titular leader. No doubt some of those are looking closely at his son in that regard. There’s little evidence, so far, that any such movement is a serious threat to the regime.
Kim Jong-un’s rule is showing signs of strain, but overseas optimists have for decades been predicting imminent regime collapse.
The thing is, Kim Jong-un has displayed ruthlessness and considerable staying power. He believes he has a shot at conquering South Korea and ruling single-handedly over the entire peninsula. That’s why we see that huge grin on his face after every missile launch and nuclear test.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of the comprehensive history Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. His forthcoming novel Nuclear Blues is a thriller set in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.