While rumors circulated that Kim Jong Un was gravely ill, people began wondering about his family and who might succeed him. South Korean officials told CNN on Sunday that Kim Jong Un was alive and well, despite rumors that a heart procedure had left him near death. Still, people wonder which family members, if any, might take his place. One of Kim Jong Un’s brothers was murdered. But he has another brother who has stayed out of the spotlight in recent years. Kim Jong Chul (sometimes spelled Kim Jong Chol) was once considered to be a possible successor to Kim Jong Il. But later reports have said he’s not interested in that kind of role of the North Korean government.
Kim Jong Chul was born in 1981 to Kim Jong Il and Ko Yong Hui. Before Kim Jong Il died, many people believed that Kim Jong Chul would be the new leader of North Korea, taking over in his father’s place. Instead, Kim Jong Un was named the leader, after some speculation had centered on Kim Jong Il’s oldest son too.
At first, Kim Jong Il’s oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was considered the heir apparent. In 1998, he was appointed to a senior position in North Korea that would secure that succession. But in May 2001, he was arrested in Japan and found to be traveling with a forged passport under the alias Pang Xiong. He was detained and deported to China. He said he had been planning to visit Tokyo Disneyland. His father canceled a trip to China with his son out of embarrassment. News stories at the time either suggested that Jong-Nam was an immature heir or a symbol of extravagant living, GQ reported. His temporary exile eventually turned permanent. Years later, in 2017, Kim Jong Nam was murdered in an airport in Malaysia. He was only 45 when he died and had been living outside of North Korea for about 15 years. Kim Jong Nam died after two women poisoned him with a VX nerve agent.
He wasn’t the only member of the family who died in recent years. In 2013, Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, was executed. Wen Wei Po reported that Kim Jong Chul personally led his arrest. Jang was accused of being a counter-revolutionary and expelled from the Worker’s Party of Korea. His image was even digitally removed from group photos with other North Korean leaders. On December 13, 2013, North Korea announced that he was executed.
Kim Jong Chul Was Passed Over to Succeed His Father in Favor of Kim Jong Un & Some Have Said He’s Not Interested in Leading
After the Disneyland “embarrassment,” all eyes turned to Kim Jong Chul. He had Army backing which made him a serious contender, many believed. But he was passed over in favor of his younger brother, Kim Jong Un.
Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jon Il’s personal sushi chef, wrote in his memoir that Kim Jong Il thought Jong Chul was too much “like a little girl” or “too effeminate” to be in that position, and so he favored Jong Un.
The Globe and Mail reported that Fujimoto said: “The older brother, Jong-chul, had the warm heart of a girl… The younger prince, Jong-un, was a boy of inner strength.”
Chul was never interested in leading North Korea, said Dr. Leonid Petrov, an expert on the North Korean family, News.com.au reported.
“Chul is also not interested in ruling, he’s apolitical and instead prefers pop music and concerts, and traveling overseas accompanied by North Korean minders,” Petrov said.
Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London, also said that Jong Chul wasn’t interested in politics and preferred to play guitar in a band.
He Wrote a Poem As a Child, Saying He Preferred a World Without Weapons
In the book “Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989,” Hyung Gu Lynn said that Kim Jong Chul had written a poem as a child expressing his wish for a world without weapons.
He was studying in Switzerland at the time, The Washington Post reported, and said his ideal world would have no weapons or atom bombs, and people would be free. He also expressed an interest in meeting Jean-Claude van Damme in the same poem. Some have hypothesized that Kim Jong Il’s past statement about his son being too much like a girl might have been related to his son’s desire to have a world without weapons, but it’s not known if this is accurate or not.
BBC reported in 2013 that Kim Jong Chul had studied at an international school in Switzerland and worked at a WKP propaganda department.
He’s a Musician & Helps His Sister in Government Roles
Much of the information about Kim Jong Chul is years old, as he tends to stay out of the spotlight.
He plays guitar and at one time was a fan of Eric Clapton, having been seen at multiple Clapton concerts over the years. On February 14, 2011, he was seen attending an Eric Clapton concert, and was again spotted at two concerts in London in May 2015. While there, he stayed at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, which can cost more than $3,500 a night, Yonhap reported.
According to The Washington Post, when Chul attended the Clapton concerts, he looked like a rock star, wearing a black leather jacket and shades. When seen in Singapore in 2006, he had pierced ears.
A Wikileaks release revealed that in 2007, North Korea wanted Eric Clapton to perform there because Chul was such a big fan. The cable was from the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, stating that North Korean officials had suggested a concert as an act of goodwill. In 2008, Clapton agreed “in principle” to the idea of performing in North Korea in 2009. However, Clapton later denied that he had agreed to that.
In 2017, Reuters reported about one of Chul’s Clapton concert moments and said that Chul was free but only interested in guitars and music.
Kim Jong Chul is said to spend his time helping his sister, Kim Sol-song, who plays a leadership role in the government, Petrov told News.com.au.
“Chul assists his sister who is a much more controlling person and runs things when Un is busy,” Petrov said. “Korea is a very traditional society and while she is revolutionary bloodline and legitimate, she probably wouldn’t rule either.”
Reports Indicate He & Kim Jong Un Are on Good Terms Today
Interestingly, more recent reports indicate that he and Kim Jong Un are on good terms, Nikkei Asian Review reported in late 2018. Kim Jong Un consulted with Kim Jong Chul and Kim Yo Jong before his summit with President Donald Trump. Unnamed sources said that Kim Jong Chul doesn’t have a significant policymaking role in the government, but Kim Jong Un does have discussions with him, indicating a respect between the two brothers.
READ NEXT: Daily COVID-19 Updates