By Chad 0Carroll
Kim Jong-nam made headlines last week with reports suggesting he was not comfortable with the third generation succession to his brother, Kim Jong-un. It wasn’t the first time Kim Jong-nam’s name made the news, with previous reports showing his desire for reform, his unhappiness with DPRK military first policy, and even his prediction that the country would collapse soon after a transfer to brother Jong-un. This time though, the latest spate of stories connected to Kim Jong-nam’s outspoken views relate to his conversations with Tokyo based journalist, Yoji Gomi.
As the most public of Kim Jong-il’s sons, Jong-nam has long been regarded by the mainstream press as the careless playboy who enraged his father through an attempted visit to Japan’s Disneyland with forged documents in the early 2000s. But a new book by Yoji Gomi suggests that while a heavy drinker, much of the initial speculation on Jong-nam’s character and predicament may actually be incorrect. Basing the book on an exchange of over 150 emails, Yoji Gomi paints the picture of a “well-read,” “intelligent,” “sensible” and in some respects “ordinary” individual, deeply concerned with his home country. And if what Kim Jong-nam said was true, then his exile might not have been quite to the extent that some had assumed, with him speaking to his father by phone regularly before his death.
While Kim Jong-nam has long made a habit of speaking to media, until the publication of Yoji Gomi’s book it had appeared that most of his conversations had been through chance meetings with foreign correspondents at airports and other public locations. Few would have suspected that he would be in such regular contact with the press as it seems he was with Mr. Gomi. As such, his conversations raise lots of interesting questions for Korea watchers, some of which we managed put to Mr. Gomi in a recent interview.
1. How did you happen to meet Kim Jong-nam and why was he so trusting in a stranger like yourself at first?
I happened to meet him at Beijing airport. We have exchanged more than 150 emails since meeting. We met two times last year and I persuaded him to take an interview with me – and he basically agreed with my plan. I suppose he wants to appeal to the public that the DPRK should make economic reforms as soon as possible.
2. Did Kim Jong-nam offer any insight into the practical way he hopes the regime could make reforms without upsetting the internal balance of power too much?
He believed that the Chinese way is the best for the DPRK. It is possible to invite capitalism while maintaining socialism. For him, the most important thing is to protect foreign investors, including those from South Korea.
3. Why do you think Kim Jong-nam has been so vocal with media, when traditionally the Kim family has been very averse to speaking with foreign media?
Good question. The motivation for contacting media, including myself, is to protect himself. When he feels that his life is in danger, he tries to get in touch with media and expose the secrets of the DPRK.
4. Do you think Kim Jong-nam has much concern for his own personal safety? He claims to be protected by China, but as we know, North Korea has the capacity to make people go missing overseas quite easily.
Yes, he is concerned about his safety. My source said that he has been protected by someone in Macao.
5. How does Kim Jong-nam feel about the forthcoming book you are publishing? Was he on board with its publication?
He is not happy with my book. So has stopped sending me emails.
6. Has Kim Jong-nam ever expressed much regarding unification to you? If so, what was his position on this?
He never referred to unification. But he does hope for economic development of North Korea.
7. What is Kim Jong-nam’s estimation of the current South Korean government led by President Lee Myung Bak?
The relationship between South and North Korea will be difficult for a whole because neither government recognizes each other, he said.
8. Has Kim Jong-nam expressed any thoughts about what a North Korea would look like not ruled by one of the Kim family? Or at least, one not ruled by his brother.
He opposed the power succession to his brother. But he did not elaborate on who is suitable to be the next leader.
9. In a WSJ report with you, Kim Jong-nam said that he spoke regularly to his father by telephone, despite media reports that he was “cut off” from Pyongyang. Did he ever reveal much about the type of conversations he had?
He said he and his father talked about the nuclear issue and power succession by phone. But he never elaborated on the details of their conversation.
10. While reports have indicated that Kim Jong-nam doesn’t know his brother Jong-un, has Jong-nam ever revealed any personality details about his younger brother to you that he picked up from other family members? If so, what were these?
Kim Jong-nam said noting about his brother, as he has never met Jong-un.