In a rare and remarkable interview posted on YouTube, the teenage grandson of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has provided a glimpse into the secretive world of his country’s ruling dynasty.
During the interview conducted at the school in Bosnia where he studies, Kim Han-sol, nephew of current leader Kim Jong-un, refers to his uncle as “a dictator” and speaks of his wish to “make things better” for the Korean people.
Sporting wide, black-frame glasses, two studs in his left ear and a fashionable haircut, Kim also talks of his close friendships with South Korean and US students and his hopes for the Korean peninsula’s reunification.
Born in Pyongyang in 1995, Kim described a lonely early childhood, spent mostly in the home of his mother’s family – isolated from the grandfather he never met and who died in December last year.
“I always wanted to meet him, because I just wanted to know what kind of person he is,” Kim said.
“I was actually waiting for him... until he passed away, hoping he would come find me, because I really didn’t know if he knew that I existed,” he said.
Kim, now 17, is the son of Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam, who fell out of favour with his father following a botched attempt in 2001 to secretly enter Japan using a fake passport and visit Disneyland.
The family has since lived in virtual exile, mainly in the Chinese territory of Macau.
“My dad was not really interested in politics,” Kim said, when asked why his father was passed over for the dynastic succession in North Korea in favour of his younger brother.
“I don’t really know why he became a dictator,” Kim said of his uncle Kim Jung-un. “It was between him and my grandfather.”
The interview was conducted in English for a Finnish television channel by Elisabeth Rehn, a former UN under secretary general and special rapporteur for Human Rights in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and first broadcast on Monday.
“When I was growing up in North Korea, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on there,” Kim said.
“I’ve always dreamed that one day I would go back and make things better and make it easier for the people there,” he added.
Kim enrolled in the United World College in Mostar last year, arousing intense media interest, which he did his best to avoid.
He gave no indication as to why he had chosen to speak out now, or whether the interview had been sanctioned either by his own family or by Pyongyang.
Speaking of his overseas studies, both in Macau and Bosnia, Kim recalled how it was “kind of awkward” when he first met students from South Korea as well as the United States.
“But then, little by little, we started understanding each other,” he said. “Now, we are really close friends and we travel together, and it’s such a wonderful feeling.
“It’s really sad I can’t go to the other side (South Korea),” he added. “But we can, if we put in a little effort, step by step, come to a conclusion and unite.”
He offered no direct insight into the current relations between his immediate family and the regime led by his uncle in Pyongyang.
In an email exchange with a Japanese journalist published in February, Kim’s father, Kim Jong-nam, had spoken disparagingly of Kim Jung-un lacking “any sense of duty or seriousness” and warned that bribery and corruption would lead to North Korea’s eventual collapse.
Kim Han-sol revealed that he had a Libyan roommate in Mostar who had been an avid supporter of the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
“When it happened he was really enthusiastic about it, and he was telling me many stories... how he went home and saw a different Libya... It was really interesting,” Kim said.
After finishing school, Kim said he envisioned himself getting involved in voluntary and humanitarian work aimed at “building world peace”.