North Korea’s leadership succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un has gone according to script. The Korean Workers’ Party and the Korean People’s Army are supporting Kim Jong-un as North Korea’s new leader and North Korea’s propaganda machine hasn’t missed a beat in announcing new titles, manufacturing accomplishments, and portraying Kim Jong-un as a Great Successor worthy of the name.
But despite these efforts, there are two notable missing pieces: Kim Jong-un’s brothers Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chol. The failure of these brothers to publicly appear at the funeral clarifies that they are excluded from power, but their apparently differing fates raise important questions about Kim Jong-un’s power and the sustainability of his leadership.
Kim Jong-chol, in his thirties, is Kim Jong-il’s second son (the first son of Kim Jong-il’s second wife, Ko Yong-hee, who is also the mother of Kim Jong-un). Although Kim Jong-chol is Kim Jong-un’s elder brother, he’s rumored to have been dismissed by his father as a potential successor for being too effeminate. Kim Jong-chol’s absence is disturbing because it raises questions about how far Kim Jong-un might go to squelch even perceived contenders for power. North Korean purges have historically been ruthless, but family members have usually been exiled rather than executed. Kim Jong-il’s half-brother Kim Pyong-il was assigned to decades of diplomatic service abroad in Europe rather than eliminated. Kim Jong-chol’s fate may hold telling clues to the character of leadership under Kim Jong-un.
If Kim Jong-chol’s silence raises questions, Kim Jong-nam’s visibility poses even more serious challenges. Kim Jong-nam, aged forty, is Kim Jong-il’s child with his first wife, Sung Hae-rim. As Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam is reported to have been groomed for succession until he fell out of favor in 2001, after being detained at Narita Airport in Japan with a fake passport. Since that time, he has lived in apparent exile in Macao and Beijing. Kim Jong-nam has emerged as a surprisingly voluble critic of North Korea’s leadership succession, directly challenging the legitimacy and capability of Kim Jong-un as a leader.
Tokyo Shimbun journalist Yoji Gomi quoted an e-mail from Kim Jong-nam received on January 3, in which Kim Jong-nam stated that “I expect the existing ruling elite to follow in the footsteps of my father while keeping the young successor as a symbolic figure…It’s difficult to accept a third-generation succession with normal reasoning,” he added. He also said he doubted that a young successor “with some two years of training can retain the absolute power.” (Gomi’s book, based on several years of e-mail exchanges with Kim Jong-nam, was being published this week in Japanese.)
This forthright public assessment of North Korea’s succession makes Kim Jong-nam the foremost external critic of Kim Jong-un’s succession and a direct challenger to the viability of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. It directly contradicts North Korean efforts to burnish Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy, and raises questions about whether sibling rivalry might be a sign of discord among Pyongyang’s elites.
External public criticism of the succession can’t be viewed as helpful to Kim Jong-un’s efforts to consolidate power, and it’s presumably in Kim Jong-un’s interest to silence his older brother from providing ongoing commentary regarding his succession, if for no other reason than that quieting Kim Jong-nam would be one means of proving that Kim Jong-un isn’t a puppet or “symbol” of the North Korean elite.
Kim Jong-nam’s public criticisms of the succession from his base in China also raise the question of who is Kim Jong-nam’s protector, especially given rumors last year that Kim Jong-un had instigated purges against leading supporters of Kim Jong-nam in Pyongyang. China presumably sees utility in protecting Kim Jong-nam – as a reform-minded Kim family member who is indebted to China – as a potential alternative leader if Kim Jong-un’s leadership fails. A more complicated factor is that in 2002 and 2003, shortly following his exile from Pyongyang, Kim Jong-nam appeared to have an open line of communication from Beijing with his uncle Jang Song-taek and his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who are now critical supporters of Kim Jong-un.
It’s ironic that Kim Jong-nam is able to robustly exercise his freedom of speech from his home base in China despite his presumed dependence on China to allow him permanent residency in that country. This circumstance complicates Kim Jong-un’s ability to silence Kim Jong-nam as compared to Kim Jong-chol, but it also raises a potentially awkward situation for China at a time when North Korea’s leadership surely seeks assurances that China isn’t hedging its support for Kim Jong-un.
Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.