Kim Jong-un’s dangerous brother
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.