N. Korea's other Kims: once heirs, now ghosts

Chico Harlan / The Washington Post /

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong Un is portrayed in North Korea's official state media as a leader without comparison, blessed with a supreme bloodline, flanked by a supportive wife and endowed with the “brilliant” ability to revamp the economy, command an army and guide the space program.

But one thing is notably absent from these descriptions: any mention of his two brothers, both of whom were once rumored to be heirs to the family-run empire.

As Kim marked his nationally celebrated birthday on Tuesday, thought to be his 30th, his brothers are far away from the state-sanctioned spotlight, one living in secrecy in North Korea, the other apparently moving between China and Singapore.

Their absence, North Korea watchers say, is integral to the personality cult that emphasizes Kim Jong Un's unique suitability to run the nuclear-armed nation. In state propaganda, Kim Jong Un is depicted as an only son, his inheritance predetermined and uncontested.

North Korea has had just three leaders in six decades — Kim Jong Un, his father and his grandfather.

But the hereditary handoffs, in reality, have always caused bitter behind-the-scenes competition.

Kim Jong Un was chosen by his father, Kim Jong Il, over his older male siblings, Kim Jong Nam, now 41, and Kim Jong Chul, 31. Kim Jong Il also had four daughters.

As the young leader now tries to consolidate power, he has no apparent plans for his brothers, who represent potential rivals whom “other elites could coalesce around,” said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership at CNA, an Alexandria, Va.-based analysis organization.

Even before Kim Jong Il died 13 months ago, Kim Jong Un's brothers led secretive lives — particularly Jong Chul, who has been photographed only a few times and has never spoken publicly. But after Kim Jong Un ascended to power, both brothers withdrew almost entirely from public view, though experts emphasize that it's unclear whether they are acting under orders.

Jong Chul, who is thought to live in North Korea, was last seen in public at a 2011 Eric Clapton concert in Singapore.

As for Jong Nam, he once led a lavish but secluded lifestyle in Macau, Asia's gambling capital, where he wore European designer brands and gave occasional doorstep interviews to Japanese and South Korean media. But he hasn't spoken to the press since January 2012, when he criticized North Korea's hereditary power transfer and predicted trouble ahead for his half-brother. Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist, said Jong Nam also cut off contact with him after exchanging emails for several years.

Little is known about the true relationships between Kim Jong Un and his brothers. Kim Jong Il's seven children — born to one official wife and a series of mistresses — were raised in separate households. A former Kim family sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, said last month in Tokyo that Jong Nam and Jong Un have never even met.

Jong Nam — Kim Jong Il's child from an illicit relationship with an actress — was raised in near-isolation, according to the memoir of an aunt who helped raise the boy and later defected. Jong Nam had a massive playroom of toys, restocked annually by a team of globe-trotting purchasers. But Jong Nam felt he was living in a “luxury prison,” according to the memoir. When, as a teenager, he had an unsanctioned relationship of his own, his father threatened to send him to the coal mines.

Still, analysts presumed that Jong Nam, as the oldest son, was the heir apparent. But his chances probably evaporated in 2001, when he tried to enter Japan — with the hopes of visiting Disneyland — with a fake Dominican Republic passport. Jong Nam has since lived overseas.

Kenji Fujimoto, the former Kim family chef who briefly returned to Pyongyang last summer, meeting with Kim Jong Un, said that “at present, in North Korea, Mr. Kim Jong Nam possesses zero power, zero influence.”

Experts say Jong Chul and Jong Un, born to the same mother, might be closer. They attended the same international school in Bern, Switzerland, with several years of overlap, and later the same military university in Pyongyang.

Their mother, Ko Young Hui, was neither Kim Jong Il's first love nor his official wife — he met her when she was performing in a state dance troupe — but many researchers say she was his favorite. Almost 10 years ago, state media began referring to her as the nation's “respected mother.” North Korea watchers say the designation was significant: They thought her oldest boy, Jong Chul, was being groomed as successor.

Experts think that Kim Jong Il remained married to his official wife — Kim Young Sook — throughout his relationship with Ko Young Hui. Young Sook had only one child, a daughter.

How Kim Jong Un outmaneuvered his brother to gain control of the country is unclear, with speculation based on the frailest of character sketches because North Korea has managed to keep a near-perfect seal on biographical information about Jong Chul.

Fujimoto, in a 2003 tell-all book about life with the Kims, described the young Jong Chul as effeminate and uninterested in politics. Chinese experts and visitors to North Korea have also been quoted — in State Department cables released by WikiLeaks and in the Japanese press — as describing Jong Chul as a video game devotee who was often sick.