After that, Kim Jong-nam appeared to have been on the outs with his father. He was reported in the media here to have heard of his father's death from Chinese, not North Korean, officials while visiting Beijing but was reportedly banned from flying to Pyongyang and is believed to have returned to Macao.
Before the incident at Narita, so worried was his step mother, the mother of Jong-un and Jong-chul, that Jong-nam was a possible rival for power with her own sons that she is rumored to have wanted to have him assassinated during a trip to Europe some time before she passed away in Paris.
Kim Jong-nam may have fallen still deeper into disfavor after a Japanese newspaper early this year quoted him as saying "hereditary succession" did not "fit socialism and my father was against it" but it "was done to stabilize the framework of the nation."
"He's talked about succession in unflattering terms," says Michael Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong-il. "That regime is very unflattering to those who betray them." He notes that a nephew of Kim Il-sung was assassinated by North Korean agents in 1997 after defecting to South Korea and writing a tell-all book about his uncle.
Eric Clapton and the Other Brother
The case of Kim Jong-chul, as the full blood older brother of Kim Jong-un, is quite different. "He definitely stays in Pyongyang," says Baek Sung-joo, director of the security and strategy center of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "He has a close relationship with Jong-nam.
Kim Jong-chul at 30 is not known to have ever had any real job but appears in no danger of assassination.
Kim Jong-il was once believed to have had him in mind as a successor after ruling out Kim Jong-nam, but word is that he finally decided he was too effete and effeminate for the job. That judgment may have been confirmed, in the eyes of his father and those around him, after he was seen at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore last February on top of reports that he had also attended Clapton concerts in Germany.
Aside from his love for "decadent" western pop, Kim Jong-chul does not seem to have offended the regime. Mr. Baek assumes the reason he was not at his father's bier is that his presence would have detracted attention from his younger brother.
"If there is no Jong-chul, the cameras will focus only on Jong-un," he says. "Kim Jong-chul will not show up for some time."
But, "he's a free man," says Mr. Sohn, and may possibly be able to travel abroad again and attend his favorite concerts. It's just that "he cannot enter the power elite," he says. "He cannot have a position."
Big brother Kim Jong-nam, however, raises more serious issues. "Maybe the new power elite will make a decision how to deal with him," says Baek. "If he makes big trouble for the new leadership, North Korea will deal roughly with him. He has little chance ever to see his brothers again."
North Korean agents may decide to leave Jong-nam alone if he behaves himself, and avoids the reporters who've been looking for him in Macao since his father's death was reported nearly two weeks ago.
"He's not unsafe as long as he's not challenging the power transition," says Choi Jin-wook, director of North Korean research at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "He's not in trouble if he's not a danger."