North Korea Drama: Where Are Kim Jong-Un's Brothers?

PHOTO: Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, waves after an interview with South Korean media representatives in Macau, June 4, 2010.
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The two older sons of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il face uncertain fates as political exiles, while brother Kim Jong-un assumes the mantle of power in Pyongyang.

Analysts offer that view after finding no signs that either have come to visit their father's body lying in state in a glass-enclosed coffin in Pyongyang.

In fact, say analysts, the spectacle of two blood brothers in the wings would be more than a mere distraction. It would be difficult to convince people that at least one of them wasn't waiting to take over, especially since they're both older and the "supreme leader," after all, has done little to prove he's worthy of the title.

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The eldest, Kim Jong-nam, at least a decade older than Jong-un, "appears to have security concerns," says Michael Breen, a long-time consultant here who's written a biography of Kim Jong-il. "He might be assassinated."

The need to keep Kim Jong-nam and his brother, Kim Jong-chul, far out of sight underlines the insecurity of a regime that immediately thrust Kim Jong-il's handpicked "great successor" into the limelight as "supreme leader" of the armed forces and the ruling party after his death two weeks ago.

The regime in recent days has gone to extraordinary lengths to put Kim Jong-un on display. On Thursday on North Korean State TV he was proclaimed "supreme leader" of the ruling party and the armed forces before 200,000 people massed on Kim Il-sung square in central Pyongyang.

Then on Friday, North Korea's national defense commission, the center of power, previously under Kim Jong-il as chairman, warned "foolish politicians around the world not to expect any changes from us." It singled out South Korea's President Lee Myung bak, denouncing him as a "national traitor," and made it clear it would not have any dealings with him.

In a campaign designed as much for domestic politics as foreign consumption, the build-up for Kim Jong-un bears vestiges of a system that endures in the style of the Chosun dynasty that held sway over the Korean peninsula for 500 years before Japan annexed all Korea as a colony in 1910. In those days, brothers were routinely eliminated as threats to the man on the throne.

David Straub, associate director of the Korea Studies program at Stanford, makes another comparison. "When you look at North Korea 's situation, you need to think in terms of European monarchies and dynasties," he says. "This is the way dynasties in nondemocratic countries behave."

Mr. Straub, former Korea desk chief at the State Department, believes Kim Jong-nam "is probably safe" from state assassination attempts as long as he chooses to live quietly in Macao.

'Stuff of Legend'

Still, Straub compares the court drama in North Korea with that of medieval Europe in which royal rivalries and assassinations were the stuff of legend.

Kim Jong-nam, mentioned as a possible successor before Japanese immigration officials in 2001 nabbed him at Tokyo's Narita Airport trying to enter Japan with a fake Dominican passport, has lived for years in the gambling center of Macao on the southeastern China coast. His excuse that he wanted to take his 4-year-old son to Disneyland did not impress the Japanese authorities, who finally sent him on to China after holding him for several days.

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