As you have heard, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia. He was a son of Kim Jong-il, the late dictator of North Korea. He was the half-brother of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un.
There have been three Kim dictators, as you know: the founder, Kim Il-sung; then his son, Jong-il; then his son, Jong-un. I discuss this family — and many other such families — in my book Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.
In that book, published in 2015, I say the following about Kim Jong-nam: “In recent years, he has dodged assassination by Jong-un.” You might say it’s amazing that he survived for as long as he did.
I will tell you some things about Kim Jong-nam.
His dad, the second dictator, had six children, probably. With dictators, it’s often impossible to know. But it seems Jong-il had six children with four women.
Jong-nam was the son of an actress named Song Hye-rim. When Kim Jong-il took up with her, she was married and had a child. She had Jong-nam in 1971.
Kim Jong-il kept his relationship with her absolutely secret. Same with the existence of their son. He ordered Hye-rim’s friends sent to a concentration camp. No one with knowledge of the little family could be in a position to blab. Almost none of these people survived the camp.
Hye-rim died in 2002, an exile in Russia, and mentally ill. She is buried in Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, quite close to a son of Stalin’s, Vasily.
Kim Il-sung, the founding dictator, died in 1994. He was the “Great Leader.” His son Jong-il took over. He was the “Dear Leader,” also known as “Unique Leader,” “Our Father,” and “Morning Star of Paektu.” (Mount Paektu is the highest point on the Korean Peninsula and hallowed by Koreans.)
During his own dictatorship, it fell to Kim Jong-il to name a successor. Eventually, he hit on his youngest son, Jong-un. (I go over all this in my book, of course.)
Why not his eldest son, Jong-nam? His existence was no longer secret. (Except that almost everything in North Korea is secret.) In the competition to succeed Kim Jong-il, Jong-nam was probably the frontrunner for a while. But he fell from favor. Why?
Many people point to an incident in 2001: Jong-nam attempted to enter Japan on a false passport (from the Dominican Republic). With a few family members, he intended to visit the Disneyland outside Tokyo. He had apparently visited Tokyo several times before, having a particular liking for strip joints.
The passport incident made news everywhere, causing a sensation. Jong-nam’s father was livid. Was this the reason Jong-nam was passed over? Almost certainly not, but it could not have helped.
It’s impossible to say what was in Kim Jong-il’s mind, but he must have found Jong-nam unsuited in some fashion, or fashions. Perhaps he sensed that Jong-nam was reform-minded. Perhaps he sensed that he lacked the dictatorial appetite.
Jong-un for sure did not lack the dictatorial appetite.
(A third son, Jong-chul, is said to suffer from a hormonal imbalance. He is described as soft and feminine. He likes Eric Clapton, the English rocker, and has been seen attending at least one of his concerts.)
Jong-nam lived abroad: in Macau, Singapore, and elsewhere. He spoke out from time to time. By his own testimony, he never met his half-brother Jong-un, the dictator. Such is the bizarre world of North Korean politics.
He indeed argued for reform, saying, for example, that the Kim dynasty should be abolished. That would make him a major dissenter. But this could have been a matter of sour grapes rather than conscience or conviction: He was passed over for the leadership, after all.
His son Han-sol is quite interesting. Born in 1995, Han-sol has lived most of his life outside North Korea. Via the social media, he has expressed concern over the widespread famine in his home country. “I know my people are hungry.”
In 2012, he was a student at the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. For television, he was interviewed by Elisabeth Rehn, a Finnish politician who was a founder of the college. Han-sol proved a winsome young man, speaking American English, complete with slang. He wore two earrings in his left ear.
He told his interviewer that he spent his first years in North Korea, kept largely isolated from society. He never met his grandfather, the dictator Kim Jong-il. He’s not sure his grandfather ever knew about him.
His mother was not a North Korean “royal” — just an ordinary citizen. Visiting her family, Han-sol could glimpse the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
He said in this interview that he dreamed of a united Korean Peninsula.
In late 2013 and 2014, the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, went on a killing spree, killing undesired members of his own family. At this time, Han-sol was a student in France and was put under police protection.
What his life is now, I don’t know. His father has just been killed by his uncle. North Korea can be joked about — it is so screwy, evilly comic — but it is probably the most nightmarish place on earth.
(Surpassed by Syria in recent years?)
‐The Dalai Lama has been engaged to be the commencement speaker for the University of California, San Diego — and a lot of Chinese students there don’t like it. They have been taught that the Dalai Lama is an enemy of the state: the People’s Republic of China.
The Dalai Lama is a great man, in several ways. (I rehearse these in my history of the Nobel Peace Prize.) But the Chinese kids need not worry so much. In his speech, the Dalai Lama may well praise Mao and describe himself as “half Buddhist, half Marxist.”
The Dalai Lama does this a lot. His audiences tend to purr. But it makes some of us less admiring of this great man.
‐Trump called the “FAKE NEWS media” the “enemy of the American People!” “Enemy of the people” is of course an old and smelly phrase. You will find it from the lips and pens of the Bolsheviks. You will find it from their forerunners in France: Robespierre and that gang. And further back than that.
I suspect that President Trump is unaware of this. Also that he was unaware of the smelly origins of “America First.”
‐In the Obama years, we conservatives squawked about the expense of Mrs. O.’s jaunt to the Costa del Sol. What about the Trump kids’ business trips? Opening golf courses in Dubai and so on?
The president’s family needs protection, needless to say. But I wonder where to draw the line: what’s legit and what’s not. I would like to read a good piece on this.
(Heaven forfend that I should do the work myself.)
‐According to reports, intelligence officials are withholding information from President Trump, fearing that it is not safe in his hands.
I wonder: Is this legit? Insubordinate? Treasonous? Are intelligence officers servants of the president, plain and simple? Do they work for him the same as Kellyanne and Spicer do? Or do they have other obligations as well? They swear an oath to the Constitution, right?
I’d like to read a really good piece on this. (Heaven forfend that …)
‐This is a conundrum: In his recent press conference, Trump said that he had planned a meeting with a congressman, Elijah Cummings, but the congressman canceled on him, fearing that a meeting would look bad, politically. (Look bad for the congressman, that is.)
The congressman responded, “I have no idea why President Trump would make up a story about me like he did today. I was actually looking forward to meeting with the president about the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs.”
During the campaign, Trump said that the Koch brothers had requested to meet him, but he turned them down. The Koch brothers responded that this was not true. In fact, Trump’s finance team had requested to meet with them, they said. And they had said no.
‐At the recent press conference, Trump said that his victory in the Electoral College was the biggest since Reagan. But it was smaller than the Electoral College victories of three of the four presidents since Reagan.
‐And what gives in North Dakota? This is a rough-tough, independent, roughneck state. Yet they don’t allow you to wear jeans on the senate floor. That’s right: even when you’re governor.
Check it out, here.
Deprissify North Dakota!
‐I don’t know if you have heard, so brace yourself: They have removed the thimble from the Monopoly game. That’s right, they are modernizing the pieces in Monopoly.
For an article, go here.
No thimble in Monopoly? Talk about decline. Are we still America?
‐The University of Michigan basketball team hasn’t beaten Wisconsin very often lately. We have been very bad against the Badgers. But we beat them bad the other night.
Our star player, Derrick Walton Jr., commented, “We haven’t been on the left side of the column too much against them” — so the Wolverines were especially pleased.
I had never heard that phrase “the left side of the column” (for a win). Glad to know it.
‐So, there’s a little language. End on a little music? For my review of a New York Philharmonic concert, with Manfred Honeck on the podium and Inon Barnatan at the piano, and Beethoven and Mahler on the program, go here.
Have a great one.