Where and why has North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s older half-brother, Kim Jong Chul, disappeared? Considering the persistent doubts about the health of Kim Jong Un and his own habit of vanishing for weeks at a time—that question assumes some urgency.
If 37-year-old Kim Jong Un were to die, Jong Chul, 40, never an active contender for power, would be a prime candidate to take over.
“In a succession scenario, his name would surely be on the table,” Greg Scarlatoui, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told The Daily Beast. The multi-tentacle Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party—of which Kim Jong Un is chairman—would decide on a successor, leaving it to the coterie of generals and top party officials now surrounding Kim Jong Un to decide on policy.
There would, said Scarlatoui, “be pluses being a direct descendant of the Paektu bloodline”—a reference to the Korean peninsula’s highest peak where Kim Jong Il, by North Korean mystique, was born in 1941 in a log cabin—“and minuses, his apparent ‘weakness’ compared to his brother.” That said, he observed, “There has always been a symbiosis between the Workers’ Party and the Kim family regime.”
“Jong Chul has an honorary position in the Organization and Guidance Department, but no reporting has ever demonstrated he contributed to a political action or decision,” Robert Collins, author of a book on the OGD after spending more than 30 years analyzing North Korea for the U.S. Command in Seoul, told The Daily Beast. “Kim Jong-un obviously tolerates his existence as long as he stays out of the way.
It was only after long-ruling Kim Jong Il deemed elder son Jong Chul “too effeminate,” according to Kim’s Japanese sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, that he designated younger brother Jong Un as successor roughly a year before dying in 2011. Ever since, it appears as though Jong Chul has been keeping his head down, playing his guitar with friends in ultra-secret surroundings in Pyongyang while Kim Jong Un makes unmistakably clear that he’s the boss and heads will roll if anyone gets out of line.
Nonetheless, the elevation of Kim Jong Chul “is a very feasible scenario,” Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul, told The Daily Beast. “The Kim family are godlike figures. In North Korea the most important qualification is to be a family member.”
That qualification is so vital that in February 2017, Kim Jong Un ordered the assassination of his 44-year-old oldest brother—and potential rival—Kim Jong Nam. Living in exile in Macau, a former Portuguese colony on the Chinese coast, Jong Nam had aroused Jong Un’s paranoid fears by criticizing Kim dynastic rule. After he had checked in for a flight from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, two young women smeared his face with what North Korean operatives had told the women, one from Vietnam, the other from Indonesia, was water, but was actually a VX chemical nerve agent concocted in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Chul, not seen publicly in Pyongyang during Kim Jong Un’s rule, was last spotted in May 2015 attending an Eric Clapton concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A veritable Clapton groupie, he had also attended his concerts in Germany in 2006 and in Singapore in 2011. Thae Yong Ho, then North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, who defected to South Korea in 2016, has said he personally arranged for the visit, including two nights of Clapton shows and a luxury hotel costing more than $3,000 a night.
Ko Yong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s third wife or consort and mother of Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Chul, and younger sister Kim Yo Jong, died of breast cancer in Paris in 2004. The degree to which Jong Un is repressing Jong Chul, keeping him under wraps, watched and guarded, is not clear, but Thae has said he’s living quietly in Pyongyang.
“Kim Jong Chol remains out of the political limelight and in the shadows in Pyongyang,” Evans Revere, a former U.S. senior diplomat in Seoul, told The Daily Beast. “He is reportedly free to play his guitars and jam with friends.”
In North Korea, bloodline is what counts. “Without having any power, yes, Kim Jong Chul could take the titles. If Jong Chul does not make trouble, nobody hates him,” Kim Tae-woo, former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
But what about Kim Yo Jong, the 34-year-old younger sister? Often outspoken, she ranks second to Kim Jong Un in actual power. Yo Jong “has played the role of second man,” said Kim Tae-woo, but she’s “already notorious in South Korea for her insulting comments” against South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in for approving military exercises on computers with U.S. forces while looking for dialog with the North.
Careful to maintain total respect for Kim Jong Un, Yo Jong, in charge of the publicity and information department of the Workers’ Party, was elevated in September to the real center of power, the state affairs commission. In a thoroughly male-dominated system, however, Kim Tae-woo believes her gender counts against her. Others in North Korea’s inner circle, he said, would not want a woman holding the country’s top posts.
“Yo Jong is danger waiting to happen,” said Collins. “North Korean society tolerating a female leader? Not likely. That would factionalize the NK elite faster than billion dollar bribes.”
Revere, however, is not so sure. Never has there been “a hint of excessive ambition on her part,” he said. “She is unfailingly deferential to Kim Jong Un in their appearances together. She also frequently speaks out on her own on key policy issues—which suggests a high level of self-confidence and her assuredness that she can speak on behalf of her brother and the regime.”
In complete contrast, Kim Jong Chul has not been known to display any desire to rule anything—a record that might make him a carefully harmless choice in internecine infighting that’s inevitable after Jong Un’s departure from the scene. In an environment in which hundreds of officials have been annihilated on orders of Jong Un and, before him, Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, survival depends on playing it safe.
Kim Jong Un, besides wiping out his older half-brother, ordered the public arrest in December 2013 live on state TV of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, married to his aunt, Kim Jong Il’s younger sister.
Glasses askew after a beating, Jang was shown being dragged by guards into a small courtroom before he was summarily executed. Once North Korea’s second highest leader under Kim Jong Il, he stood accused of corruption and numerous other crimes after having made the fatal mistake of wanting to hold real authority rather than merely advising as a humble servant.
Kim Jong Un, who’s got every top title from president to party chairman to chairman of the state affairs commission to commander of the armed forces, has ruthlessly consolidated power even as his health remains a matter of concern and speculation. Judging from photographs, he’s shed about 20 kilograms, down from 140 kilograms, but that’s still far too heavy for one who’s just 5 feet 8 inches.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, aggressively supporting President Moon’s bid for dialog and reconciliation with North Korea, has issued statements saying that doubts about his health are “groundless.” The NIS has also dismissed speculation that a body double has been filling in for him on occasion and denounced as “not true at all,” addressing a story emblazoned last month on the front page of the American supermarket tabloid Globe that Kim Yo Jong had taken over from her brother in a coup.
However, the credibility of the NIS, led by Park Jie-won, accused 20 years ago for his role in payoffs to North Korea to bring about the North-South summit in June 2000 between the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il, is open to question. “Moon’s number one objective with regard to North Korea from the beginning of his presidency,” Bruce Bennett, long-time Korea analyst at the Rand Corporation, told The Daily Beast, “has been to establish a condition of peaceful coexistence.”
Kim Jong Un’s “tremendous weight loss,” Bennett added, “raises serious questions about whether the pictures we are seeing are of one or more of Kim’s doubles.” In fact, “We don’t even know enough to dismiss what in other circumstances might be considered ridiculous suggestions. By failing to be open and with their history of using doubles, there will almost certainly be periodic speculation about problems in the North Korean leadership.”
Yet another issue is whether Kim Jong Chul, were he to emerge as a figurehead, could win the respect befitting the titles, however empty, that might fall to him.
“Kim Jong Chul would not make a very effective leader—he certainly would not be directing the Politburo and similar meetings the way Kim Jong Un does,” said Bennett. “Of course, the North could use a body double of him to maintain appearance while Kim Yo Jong ruled.”
Kenji Fujimoto, who satiated the culinary tastes of the Kim family for years, explained in a memoir why Kim Jong Il eliminated Kim Jong Chul from the succession. The kid, Fujimoto quoted Jong Il as saying, was “like a girl.”