When veteran North Korea watchers turn their attention to a young man named Kim Han-sol, these days his real identity is no longer much in question.
Their overriding concerns are “where is he?” and “who is hiding him?” Is he with the Chinese, the South Koreans or the Americans? Or is he the well-guarded guest of a North Korean defector group?
Han-sol is the 22-year-old son of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who was assassinated in Malaysia earlier this year in a plot involving suspected agents from Pyongyang.
He is also the grandson of former North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il. This qualifies him as the last surviving male of so-called “Baekdu” descent — the direct bloodline running from North Korean state founder Kim Il-sung.
The upshot is that Kim Jong-nam’s eldest son is a genealogical successor to North Korea’s supreme leader at a time when China, the US and South Korea, in varying degrees, are believed to be mulling “regime change” as one option in defusing a nuclear crisis with Pyongyang that has the potential to erupt into World War III. Such as it is an option at all, it’s one that becomes all the more alluring as the human costs of a full-scale US military intervention are weighed.
“People are absolutely trying to find this guy or find out who’s got him socked away,” says Korea expert Daniel C. Sneider, an associate director of research for Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Han-sol and his surviving family members vanished shortly after his father was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13 with an alleged toxic nerve agent. His whereabouts are currently unknown.
It doesn’t take a rocket man to figure out why he disappeared. “The legitimacy of the North Korean regime, dynastic or otherwise, depends in part upon having that family blood,” Sneider says, noting that it was only logical for Han-sol’s uncle, Kim Jong-un, to want to get rid of him.
“If the Chinese wanted to carry out a coup d’etat in North Korea, Han-sol would be the one they would install to confer legitimacy on whatever regime they created,” Sneider adds. “The Chinese had Han-sol’s father stashed in Macau for a long time and they were protecting him to some degree.” But Sneider believes China isn’t yet ready to pull the trigger on a regime-change option.
Hit squad in Beijing?
South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo added to intense speculation when it reported that Chinese police in Beijing had smashed a plot by North Korean agents to assassinate Han-sol during the recent Communist Party Congress in October. The story implied that Han-sol is hiding in China, presumably under government protection.
Sneider takes any story about the North in South Korea’s media with a grain of salt. “That means the story came from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS),” Sneider said. “Sometimes the news is accurate, sometimes it’s not.”
But wherever he is, few doubt that Han-sol is the real deal. That’s because in the years prior to his father’s death he granted a number of media interviews in which his identity was more or less verified.
What interests analysts is that Han-sol spoke critically of North Korea in a 2012 interview – in English – with a Finnish TV station, saying: “I’ve always dreamed that one day I will go back and make things better.”
In March, following Jong-nam’s murder, Han-sol also appeared in another YouTube video posted by Cheollima Civil Defense, a North Korean defector group that took credit for organizing Han-sol’s escape. In it, a young man who identifies himself as Han-sol says: “My father has been killed a few days ago. I’m currently with my mother and sister.” He doesn’t reveal his location, but shows what appears to be a North Korean diplomatic passport to confirm his identity.
Cheollima thanked the US, China and the Netherlands in an online statement for their aid in getting Han-sol and his family out of Macau, where they had been residing. A fourth country that helped was unnamed. The statement also praised A.J.A. Embrechts, the Dutch ambassador to South and North Korea, for his help in spiriting the family to safety.
“This will be the first and last statement on this particular matter, and the present whereabouts of this family will not be addressed,” said Cheollima, thanking “all who stand with us on the right side of history.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on October 3 that the three named nations provided help with travel, visas and other details for the escape. Cheollima also accused “several nations” of declining to help in what it termed a “humanitarian emergency.”
Where is he?
If any nation-state is hiding Han-sol, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this young scion of the Kim dynasty is now one of the most closely guarded humans on the planet. But no one knows if he’s being protected by a foreign government or a proxy state – or if has struck out on his own.
Sneider says no one should assume that Han-sol is in China. He says South Korea is a possibility, as is the US (although he quips that it’s unlikely the US is concealing him since President Donald Trump would have disclosed that information in a tweet).
“Why did (Han-sol) do that video interview? Was he trying to protect himself and who is this mysterious network behind him? This to me smacks of South Korean intelligence,” Sneider said.
Still, a US connection can’t be ruled out. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, citing Malaysian police sources, reported in June that Han-sol’s father was carrying US$120,000 in cash when he was killed and that his meeting with an American male with alleged links to the CIA might have been behind North Korea’s decision to silence him.
Specialist news sites on North Korea, including one in Japan, cite sources who deny that Han-sol is in China or that he was the target of an attempted assassination in Beijing last month. Some also insist that Han-sol is in the Netherlands.
No government in exile
The possibility that Han-sol is with a North Korean defector group cannot be ruled out. The Wall Street Journal article said the family contacted Cheollima for help soon after Jong-nam was killed and that it flew them to Taiwan. After this, they departed for parts unknown.
Various sources have confirmed Cheollima as a bonafide North Korean defector group. It’s one of dozens of such organizations worldwide that help resettle North Korean refugees. There are an estimated 30,000 defectors from the North. Most escape by way of China and are allowed to live in South Korea after being screened by Seoul’s NIS.
While many of these groups are politically hostile to Pyongyang, Sneider says that, as far as he knows, there is no such thing as a North Korean government in exile. “What would that mean? A shadow cabinet?,” Sneider asked. “There might be a network of pissed-off North Korean defectors but no government in exile.”
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times