As Kim prepares for his nationally celebrated birthday on Tuesday, thought to be his 30th, his brothers are far from the state-sanctioned spotlight, one living in secrecy in North Korea, the other apparently moving between China and Singapore.
Their absence, North Korea watchers say, is integral to the personality cult that emphasizes Kim Jong Eun’s unique suitability to run the nuclear-armed nation. In state propaganda, he is depicted as an only son, his inheritance predetermined and uncontested.
North Korea has had just three leaders in six decades — Kim Jong Eun, his father and his grandfather — but the hereditary handoffs, in reality, have always caused bitter behind-the-scenes competition.
Kim Jong Eun was chosen by his father, Kim Jong Il, over his older male siblings, Kim Jong Nam, now 41, and Kim Jong Chul, 31. Kim Jong Il also had four daughters.
As the young leader tries to consolidate power, he has no apparent plans for his brothers, who represent potential rivals whom “other elites could coalesce around,” said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership at CNA, an Alexandria-based organization.
But Kim is believed to be grooming his youngest sister, thought to be in her mid-20s, as an aide. That mirrors the strategy used by his father, who gave his younger sister Kim Kyong Hui considerable power but banished his half brother into diplomatic exile. Kim Kyong Hui remains a major figure in North Korea, part of an inner leadership circle that includes her husband.
Even before Kim Jong Il died about 13 months ago, Kim Jong Eun’s brothers led secretive lives — particularly Jong Chul, who has been photographed only a few times and has never spoken publicly. But after Kim Jong Eun ascended to power, his brothers withdrew almost entirely from public view, though experts emphasize that it’s unclear whether they were acting under orders.
Jong Chul, who is thought to live in North Korea, was last seen in public at a 2011 Eric Clapton concert in Singapore.
As for Jong Nam, he once led a lavish but secluded lifestyle in Macau, Asia’s gambling capital, where he wore European designer brands and gave occasional doorstep interviews to Japanese and South Korean media. But he hasn’t spoken to the media since last January, when he criticized North Korea’s hereditary power transfer and predicted trouble for his half brother. Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist, said Jong Nam also cut off contact with him after exchanging e-mails for several years.
In October, a man claiming to be a North Korean agent said he had been ordered to kill or injure Jong Nam by staging a car accident in China. The allegation came after the man was arrested in South Korea for unrelated activities — he said he had been sent there to monitor defector groups. The man, whose name was not given in court documents, said his orders to harm Jong Nam came from North Korea’s state security agency in 2010, the year Kim Jong Eun was officially anointed successor.