North Korea’s Mickey Mouse Club
Kim Jong-il, the dictator who lead North Korea for nearly two decades, died over the past weekend. Filling his (platform) shoes is his son, Kim Jong-un. But unlike most sons who succeed their fathers in the seat of government, Jong-un is not the oldest son. He’s actually the youngest of three, and his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam (pictured), is the oldest. So why isn’t Jong-nam taking over for his recently deceased father?
Because he really, really wanted to meet Mickey Mouse.
Jong-nam was born in 1971, more than a decade before Jong-un, the now-leader of North Korea. His mother was a woman named Song Hye-rim who was married to a man other than Kim Jong-il. According to Time Magazine, Jong-il wished to hide this affair from his father, Kim Il-sung, so Jong-il sent Jong-nam to live with Hye-rim’s sister. (Later, Jong-il would force Hye-rim and her husband to divorce, but Jong-il probably never married her — nor did he marry one of the two other women with whom he’d have children.) Because of the tight controls North Korea places on information and media coming from inside its borders, we know very little about Jong-nam’s childhood otherwise, but the implication is that Kim Il-Sung never knew about his eldest grandson.
Nevertheless, Jong-nam was groomed to be his father’s successor starting around 1998, four years after his grandfather died. He took a position near the top of the Ministry of Public Security and led the government organization charged with building North Korea’s computing technologies industry. In early 2001, he even went on a diplomatic junket to Shanghai, with his father, to explore ways to further grow North Korea’s IT sector.
But that May, the then roughly 30 year old Jong-nam went on another trip. He took a flight to Tokyo, intending to visit Tokyo Disneyland. But he never made it to the theme park. Japanese officials detained Jong-nam for traveling using a forged passport — Jong-nam tried to enter the country using a faux Dominican Republic passport under the name “Pang Xiong.” He was deported to China, leading to the cancellation of his father’s scheduled trip there as well as a significant amount of embarrassment for Jong-il. Soon after, Jong-nam fell into disfavor, and Jong-un became the heir-apparent to their father.
Today, Jong-nam lives outside Beijing. But in one regard, he has followed in his father’s footsteps: Jong-nam has been married twice and is known to have at least one mistress, with children from each.
From the Archives: It’s a Small, Exclusive World After All: The somewhat hidden, exclusive restaurant at the original Disneyland.
Related: A set of 30 “world traveler” passports — in case you want to recreate Jong-nam’s misadventures.
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