Young Mr Kim's low-profile high life in Macau

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am

Drinking and dining cronies don't know he's despot's son

With his Swiss education and language skills, Kim Jong-nam has moved about cosmopolitan Macau easily. He counts Portuguese, Chinese and Australians among his friends - and some of his late-night dining and drinking cronies don't even know he is the eldest son and potential political heir of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Mr Kim has been seen around the restaurants of Macau's Outer Harbour reclamation, apparently relaxed and genial. He often pops across to Taipa island for a late-night tot of whisky or cognac.

'He's not short of funds but he doesn't always live the high life. He has tastes that can be very down-to-earth,' said one Macau source familiar with his movements. 'Very late at night he may stop with friends at a streetside establishment that is far from luxurious.

'He is low-profile, but that doesn't seem to stop him enjoying life. The guy seems to like Macau. He says he is happier there than on the mainland.'

Mr Kim travels by taxi and does not use bodyguards, but is often accompanied by friends. He has had little to do with Macau's small North Korean community, which shifted to Zhuhai after the US-led financial crackdown on North Korea in 2005, when accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia were frozen.

Mr Kim has spent long stretches over the last three years living at the Mandarin Oriental hotel near Macau's ferry terminal, checking in under a false name. During that time he has made trips to Bangkok, Beijing and Europe. His family stay in a large villa on Coloane island, which, sources say, Mr Kim finds too quiet.

He prefers the bustle of Macau's downtown, frequently spending hours in saunas and sometimes playing casino slot machines. He also favours nightclubs in the Lisboa Hotel.

Mr Kim checked out of the Mandarin yesterday, hotel staff said. Sally de Souza, Mandarin Group spokeswoman, confirmed that Mr Kim was not in the hotel.

She said she was unable to comment on past stays or reservations, saying it was against company policy.

Western and Asian diplomats are investigating what work he is doing in Macau on behalf of his father's regime. 'It is far too costly an operation to believe he is not being of service, particularly at a time when North Korea's long ties with Macau are facing the squeeze,' said one diplomatic source.

The Macau government has not commented on Mr Kim's presence.

Before settling in Macau, Mr Kim had held senior posts in Pyongyang, working in domestic intelligence and leading a technology drive. A computer enthusiast, he played a key role in development of the Korean Computer Centre in Pyongyang, an effort to ensure North Korea keeps up with international advances, such as voice-recognition and fingertip-identification technology as well as more sensitive cyber-warfare research.

Diplomatic sources believe his prospects of succeeding his father are still dim. His star waned when he was detained in Japan in May 2001, then deported. He was caught trying to enter the country from Singapore on a false Dominican Republic passport, accompanied by two women and a four-year-old child. He told immigration officials he hoped to visit Disneyland. The affair was seen as humiliating for Pyongyang. Since them Mr Kim, 35, has largely kept away from Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-il has not picked a successor, but the issue is likely to surface this month, when he turns 65.