Kim Jong-nam Claims North Korea Reformist Mantle

In a new book out in Japan, Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s new leader, claims that he is a reformer, opposed to succession, but defended his father's persona.

JoongAng Sunday, AFP / Getty Images

It’s been a month since North Korea’s Kim Jong-il met his maker, but the outside world has yet to hear whether Kim Jong-un, his young successor, has any plans to chart a different future for the impoverished nuclear state.

But according to a new book that hit shelves in Japan last week, the new ruler’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, has an idea—one that has kept him from returning to Pyongyang. In My Father, Kim Jong-il, and I, author Yoji Gomi, a reporter at Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, reveals three interviews and 150 email exchanges he’s had with Kim Jong-nam—many of them critical of the policies adopted by his father’s regime. In those correspondences, Kim Jong-nam spoke of his conviction that reform is the only way forward for North Korea, and questions whether his half-brother can better the lives of his countrymen. In his last email to Gomi, dated Jan. 3, Kim Jong-nam wrote: “There is no way that anybody with a sound mind will agree with a third-generation succession. How can a young successor, with only two years of grooming, take over (a system of) absolute power that has continued for 37 years? I suspect that the existing power group will prop up the young successor as a symbol, and take over my father.”

Gomi’s book—a result of a chance meeting with Kim Jong-nam at Beijing Capital International Airport in 2004—gives readers a unique glimpse into a dynasty and regime that has continued to baffle the world.

Kim Jong-nam is best known for being detained by Japanese authorities in 2001 while trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport. Some “Pyongyang watchers” have speculated that the incident cost him his chances to succeed his father (Gomi debunks this in the closing pages of the book, arguing that the real reason behind Kim Jong-nam’s fall was his insistence on reform). He’s been living in Macau and Beijing ever since, and has been portrayed by the international press as a wacky, hard-drinking playboy obsessed with bling.

There might be a little bit of truth to that—Kim Jong-nam says he suffered from gout as a result of drinking, and admits that he has had “many women.” But Gomi discovers through emails that Kim Jong-nam is more sophisticated than meets the eye. The veteran journalist describes Kim Jong-nam as a well-read, multilingual, and cosmopolitan man who is deeply concerned with the future of his home country. “In a nation where his father wielded absolute power, Kim Jong-nam is the only person who questioned the methods of his nation and pleaded with his father for economic reform and liberalization,” Gomi writes.

Kim Jong-nam lives in Macau in exile, but interestingly, Gomi believes that the eldest son of Kim Jong-il is still a player to be reckoned with. Should Kim Jong-un’s regime collapse, Gomi conjectures that China will back the like-minded reformist Kim Jong-nam to take over the reins in Pyongyang.

The book debunks some of the conventional wisdoms about Kim Jong-il. For example, the Dear Leader was widely believed to have been a heavy drinker of the hard stuff, but Kim Jong-nam told Gomi that he rarely saw his father drink, save on holidays. On more important matters, the careful reader will realize that Kim Jong-il was not the absolute dictator as popular belief had it. In several emails, Kim Jong-nam obliquely suggests that his father was pressured into making decisions that he was not necessarily happy with.

Here are some highlights from the book.

Kim Jong-nam, the critic:

In his emails, Kim Jong-nam sounds more like a level-headed and informed North Korea analyst from the West, rather than the son of a dictator who threatened its neighbors with nukes.

He blasts the hereditary transfer of power, writing in one email that the decision will turn North Korea into a “laughing stock of the world.” Kim Jong-nam argues that a third-generation succession is “unprecedented” in Korea’s history with the exception of its feudal period, and that it contradicts socialism.

In fact, Kim Jong-il was also adamantly opposed to the idea, according to Kim Jong-nam’s emails. Kim Jong-nam doesn’t provide a definitive answer as to why his father changed his mind, other than mentioning that “internal factors” were involved—hinting that Kim Jong-il was somewhat pressured into making that decision. In the end, his father had no other choice but to anoint one of his sons because the North Koreans have become so used to believing the blood lineage of Kim Il-sung, that anyone else could disrupt the system, Kim Jong-nam wrote to Gomi.

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Kim Jong-nam repeatedly told Gomi that North Korea’s only way forward is to adopt China’s mixed economic model of socialism and controlled capitalism—a belief he says he picked up in the mid-’90s. Kim Jong-nam says he clashed with his father on the subject, writing to Gomi that “reform and liberalization” were words his father disliked.

On the foreign-policy front, Kim Jong-nam believes that it is unlikely that North Korea will ever give up its nukes, given its animosity toward the United States. Kim Jong-nam attributes the regime’s hardline antics to its geopolitical situation of having to survive while being surrounded by great powers—though he adds that Pyongyang’s behavior will do little to solve North Korea’s problems.

Despite his advocacy for reform, Kim Jong-nam remains skeptical of prospects for change. “North Korea’s priority is to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States. Only then will it discuss reunification (with the South) and take measures to rebuild the economy—but given the tensions among the United States, South and North Korea, it’s difficult to expect reform and liberalization.”

In latter emails, Kim Jong-nam wrote to Gomi that he was surprised with the regime’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to his ideas. In his last interview with Gomi, Kim Jong-nam told the journalist: “Nothing will change. It simply can’t change.”

On his relationship with Kim Jong-il:

Gomi writes that Kim Jong-nam spoke of his father with “fear, despair, anger and respect.”

In several instances, Kim Jong-nam describes his father as “strict but a loving person.” Considering the millions who starved to death and the tens of thousands sent to gulags under his rule, “loving” is probably the last word that comes to mind when describing Kim Jong-il. But that might have been the case for Kim Jong-nam, who was coddled by his father in his younger years—he once got a luxury car just for going to the dentist, according to one email.

Kim Jong-nam’s relationship with his father changed after he spent more than nine years at an international school in Geneva. During that time, Kim Jong-il’s attention turned to his two younger sons, according to Kim Jong-nam, and that his father became disappointed in him for his Western ways of thinking (Kim Jong-nam says he made several friends in Geneva from around the world, and also claims to have an American friend who now works on Wall Street. He says he reconnected with many of his acquaintances via Facebook and Twitter).

Despite his tumultuous relationship with his father, Kim Jong-nam shows frustration with the outside media’s portrayal of Kim Jong-il as a crazy, eccentric dictator. “The media is creating an image of my father as this scary person. He isn’t like that.”

As he told Gomi in an interview, Kim Jong-nam thinks his father’s entourage is responsible for the Dear Leader’s image problem. “My father is deeply thinking about the future of North Korea, and he is disappointed that things aren’t going the way he likes them to. From my perspective as his son, I think the surrounding environment and his advisors aren’t capable enough. My father’s image is tarnished because of people who are only good at smooth-talking.”

Kim Jong-nam also writes to Gomi: “There are sleazy officials who kiss up to my father for their own survival, lying about the affairs of the country in pursuit of their own good and creating a barrier between the leadership and the people … I want these people to disappear away from my father and the successor. They are of no use for the development of North Korea and the future of the successor.”

On Kim Jong-un:

Surprisingly, Kim Jong-nam says he never met his youngest half-brother, since he was living in Geneva at the time of Jong-un’s birth (though Kim Jong-nam says he met Kim Jong-chol a number of times abroad “by coincidence.”

Kim Jong-nam says he is willing to help his brother from abroad, but he remains skeptical of Kim Jong-un’s ability to better the lives of his countrymen. “If my brother is opposed to reform and liberalization, I’m doubtful as to what kind of vision he has for developing North Korea in the future,” he wrote in one email. Kim Jong-nam is blunter in another email he sent a week before Kim Jong-il’s death: “Jong-un might look like our grandfather (Kim Il-sung), but I’m worried how he can satisfy his people.”