Son of slain estranged brother of North Korean leader was caught between two worlds
Media accounts of Kim Han-sol, whose father was killed last week, point to a young man who felt isolated at home and at ease overseas
The mysterious death of Kim Jong-nam has drawn international attention to his son Kim Han-sol, who has spoken in a published video interview of his “isolated” childhood, his hope of one day returning home and his wish for the eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
His whereabouts remain unknown after the reported assassination of his father – the older half-brother of Kim Jong-un – in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, according to South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.
The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, visited two properties in Macau, where the family – Kim Han-sol, his younger sister Kim Sol-hui and mother Lee Hye-Kyong – are believed to live, but it reported that “no one would talk”.
The Macau law enforcement authority said on Wednesday that it would “do everything to ensure the safety and rights of Macau residents and visitors”.
According to South Korea’s spy agency, the family is living under Chinese protection. The first wife of the late Kim, as well as another son, reportedly reside in Beijing.
Kim Han-sol is a stylish young man, who favours black clothes, dyed orange hair, earrings and black-rimmed glasses, according to photos on a Facebook account that appears to be his.
He first came into the media spotlight in 2011 when the then 16-year-old was denied a student visa by the Hong Kong government after he was accepted by Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong.
Stephen Codrington, the former Hong Kong school principal who interviewed him, described the teen as a “lovely kid, very bright, charismatic” with “good English” and a “good sense of idealism”, the Sunday Morning Post reported earlier.
Born in 1995, Kim Han-sol spent the first few years of his life in Pyongyang before moving to Macau, though he said he returned home every summer to visit relatives and “keep in touch with the families”, he told Elisabeth Rehn, a former United Nations undersecretary general from Finland who conducted a video interview with him in 2011.
Speaking in fluent English, Kim said his childhood was “very isolated to keep a low profile”, which was probably why he didn’t have many friends in North Korea.
But outside of the North, such as in Macau, Kim said he was glad to be part of an international community, which allowed him to meet people from the United States and South Korea, two sworn enemies of Pyongyang.
“We turned out to be very great friends in the end and that just sparked the curiosity to go further to the next level,” he said as he described why he enrolled in United World College at Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He was part of a programme that required studying chemistry, physics, mathematics or economics in English, along with other pupils aged between 16 and 18, according to a report by The Telegraph in 2011.
In the video interview, Kim comes across as confident and poised, growing excited when the conversation shifts to his new school life and his friends from Libya and South Korea, though he admitted that media attention did make him “uncomfortable”.
He said his visa application process to attend school in Mostar was frozen after South Korean news outlets learned about his intentions.
The media continued to chase him after his arrival at the school. “For the first time ever, I had that kind of pressure, constant camera flashes ... it was uncomfortable for me at first.”
He also spoke openly of his wish for the eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula. “I have always dreamed one day I will go back and make things better, make it easier for all the people there,” he said. “I also dream of reunification because it’s really sad that I can’t go to the other side [South Korea] and see my friends there.”
Asked why his uncle was appointed as leader, he said: “My dad was definitely not really interested in politics. I really don’t know how [my uncle] became a dictator ... It was between him and my grandfather.”
In December 2013, Kim Han-sol returned to the media spotlight when reports said he was under French police protection in his first year at Le Havre campus of France’s Sciences Po university, after his uncle ordered the execution of his own uncle, Jang Sung-taek.
Jang was believed to have taken on a de facto leadership role after Kim Jong-il grew ill and died, to be replaced by Kim Jong-un. Jang is said to have maintained a close relationship with Kim Jong-nam.
The Telegraph cited an official from the university as saying in 2013 that Kim was in a part of a Europe-Asia undergraduate programme, with classes that focused on the relationship between Europe and Asia. According to South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper Kim has been admitted to graduate school at Oxford University but hasn’t yet enrolled.