“My Grandfather was a Dictator?!” Some Thoughts on Kim Han Sol

I just watched a fascinating interview with Kim Han Sol (김한솔), whose father Kim Jong Nam is Kim Jong Il’s eldest son – so his grandfather was a dictator. My first impression of him was, “such a typical Korean boy”, by which I mean South Korean. The thick frames, aka hipster glasses, pierced ears (two in his right ear?!), overall 분위기 – sorry, vibe – is totes South Korean youth. Then he started talking about growing up mainly abroad and going back every summer to visit family in North Korea, and I was like, “that’s me!!! That’s my life he’s describing!” Only replace North with South. Well, that, plus the American accent, is obviously where our similarities end. Attempt at empathy over.

Anyhow, he went into more detail about his childhood and family. Despite having studied North Korean politics, I really don’t know anything about Kim Jong Il’s progeny. Sure, I know all the details of him and his wives, but really only the juicy ones. (I am clearly a great student of politics). I did keep up with Kim Jong Il’s latest declarations and political maneuverings (otherwise known as brinkmanship), but as much as I read political analysis of North Korea, I spent an equal amount of time on sites like Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things (the Dear Leader really liked to look at things) and reading about his latest ideas to alleviate hunger – giant German rabbits. But I don’t mean to make light of Kim Jong Il’s personal life and his habits, because they had devastating effects on the North Korean population. For example, KJI was at one point the biggest individual buyer of Hennessy – while people in his country were, and still are, entirely dependent on food handouts and very often starved. The ridiculousness of the heroic image of the Dear Leader is juxtaposed with the bleak reality of 24.4 million North Koreans.

So to hear Kim Han Sol talk about his early childhood in North Korea, and his relationship with his family, was fascinating. Because of the dynastic nature of leadership in North Korea, I assumed he would have grown up quite close to his grandfather, who of course would want to groom his son, and grandson, into succeeding the Dear Leader as the Supreme (Awesome/ Mighty/ Powerful/ Preeminent/ Magnificent – take your pick) Leader. Turns out, Kim Han Sol never met his grandfather, Kim Jong Il. In fact, he didn’t know his family connections for a long time – he only realized his grandfather was a dictator a few years ago. In the interview, he says his mother comes from an “ordinary family” – or not from the ruling party elite – and that has given him an understanding of how most of the people in the world live. Now obviously, he’s had quite the privileged life in terms of the creature comforts. It’s not like he was starving while his family lived in North Korea or in Macao. But I got the sense that he grew up as a “normal” rich kid, and not with the identity and stigma of being the grandson and nephew of dictators. He himself calls them dictators during the interview, which considering the personality cult surrounding the Dear and Supreme Leaders of North Korea, is quite a forthright and courageous thing to do. Of course, he and his immediate family probably have no intention of ever going back to North Korea, and they are part of the lucky few who have managed to leave.

The interview ends with Han Sol talking about his future goals. In short, he wants to help achieve peace on the Korean peninsula, and of course world peace. Admirable goals, and by virtue of his family tree and international upbringing, he will probably be more able to advance peaceful negotiations and relations between North and South Korea than perhaps others will. I’d really like to ask him what his thoughts are on reunification. Diplomatic as Elisabeth Rehn was, she didn’t really ask him very difficult questions or push him on the things he discussed. Considering his age, and the tricky position he could get into if certain subjects were broached, I’m sure Rehn did the best job as an interviewer that anyone could have. Still, all the juicy questions are left unasked and unanswered!

For example, both North and South Korea (or the DPRK and RoK if we’re really going to be politically correct) support reunification, at least officially. Of course, North Korea wants to be reunited under its own terms – as a two-state federation, each with its own rules but as a unified Korea. And a unified Korea under the current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, if they could get their way. South Korea and its allies, the U.S. in particular, wouldn’t settle for anything other than a liberal democracy or something of the sort. So what are the options? A unified Korea under South Korean (and American) direction, which isn’t going to go over so well with North Korean elites (an understatement) and the Chinese. Or a unified Korea following North Korean designs, which is never going to happen. Otherwise, a significant portion of the South Korean government urge North Korea to be more like China – hold on to their Communist ideology if they will, but allow for significant reform in the economic sector to alleviate hunger and poverty. And also stop with the nuclear brinkmanship, of course. I’ve also read of a proposal to have the two Koreas become friendly neighbors such as Canada and the United States. Both countries speak the same language and have similar cultures (I’m sure Canadians would disagree, but for argument’s sake lets allow for this comparison to be made), and yet are two separate, distinct countries on friendly terms. But for this to happen, there would have to be significant regime change in North Korea. The current leader of North Korea, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, is Swiss-educated and more worldly than his father and grandfather. He seems to be more open to Western ideas, recently having thrown a concert with Mickey Mouse and Frank Sinatra impersonators. Who knows, maybe he’ll be more open to change than the Dear Leader was. The problem is, all the typical predictions of dictators falling during times of economic hardship and famine, and regimes falling during succession crisis or with the death of the founding leader, have been falsified in North Korea. The people of North Korea have suffered through terrible famines and still support the regime; Kim Jong Un has managed to smoothly transition into the role of Supreme Leader after Kim Jong Il’s sudden death. So what next? These are the questions I would want asked of a member of the Kim dynasty. But perhaps not to a 17-year old who seems to want a normal life – who deserves to have a normal life. It’s no fault of his own that he was born into this dictatorial family.


2 responses to ““My Grandfather was a Dictator?!” Some Thoughts on Kim Han Sol

  1. there would have to be significant regime change in North Korea? why doesnt the Republic of Korea also become a democracy?>

    • What, instead of the DPRK ceasing to be the totalitarian, famine-creating, death-inducing regime that it is? Great suggestion. Oh, and by the way, I think ROK does actually qualify as a democracy. Not a perfect one, maybe not even a good one, but a democracy nonetheless.

      But actually, let’s just say I will politely disregard your question as purely rhetorical, and leave it at that.

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