Kim Han-sol, the theoretical wannabe to Kim Jong-un’s throne, clearly doesn’t fit the mold of North Korea’s secluded ruling dynasty.
Kim Jong-un’s estranged nephew was born in Pyongyang and raised in China and Macau. College-educated and fluent in English, he is said to have attended an international school in Bosnia and studied in France. There also are reports that the 22-year-old, who speaks with a British accent, had planned to enroll at Britain’s Oxford University before his father’s demise in February forced him underground.
Earlier photos show a bespectacled boy sporting a spiky hair style and ear studs, who appears to have done many of the things that youngsters do in the West.
South Korea’s TV Chosun broadcast a story on October 9 claiming that Han-sol is frustrated at life on the lam and has taken to daytime drinking.
“According to various sources, Kim Han-sol is under ‘iron-like’ protection at his mother’s house at an undisclosed location. This keeps him safe, but also makes him frustrated at the same time,” the report said.
Can he lead?
Some doubt Han-sol’s ability to lead a historically brutal nation like North Korea. But Korea expert Daniel C. Sneider notes: “It’s not about skill sets — blood and family are crucial in North Korea.” On the upside, he seems to be open-minded and critical of the current regime in Pyongyang.
Sneider, a researcher at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, notes that Han-sol’s father, Jong-nam, was under nominal Chinese protection at the family’s former Macau residence. But the arrangement didn’t amount to 24-hour security.
Leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother was also no recluse. Sneider says Kim Jong-nam was fond of giving media interviews “for a price.” An inveterate playboy, he had a taste for gaming, fine wines and gourmet meals. He would often wander overseas without bodyguards, as was the case when he was poisoned in Malaysia with nerve gas.
An August story in the Nikkei Asian review alleged that Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and close adviser, in December 2013, after learning that Jang had approached China with the idea of supporting a coup that would replace him with Jong-nam.
The Nikkei said Jong-nam was also killed years later because he figured in the purported plot.
Sneider questions if Jong-nam aspired to be anything other than a playboy. “Jong-nam wasn’t ambitious, he didn’t want to be used and he was trying to take himself off the target list when he was killed,” Sneider said.
Will his son Han-sol be any different? As Hamlet said in Shakespeare’s play: “That is the question …”
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times