It’s easy to forget sometimes that Kim Jong-il has four kids. That’s because the middle two, daughter Kim Sul-song and son Kim Jong-chul, toil away quietly within party ranks, leaving disenfranchised oldest son Kim Jong-nam and ridiculously young successor in waiting Kim Jong-un to divide up the public media speculation and bickering. The latest broadside comes via the Friday January 28th publication in the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun of a recent interview given by Jong-nam.
The prominence of the two bookend sons renders the goings on at the dynastic tip of North Korea a little like the melodrama of Arthur Miller‘s Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman. Think of Kim Jong-il as Willy Loman, having just returned from a business trip to China empty handed. Though he came away with some concessions, he did not secure the big prize in Beijing.
That leaves pops to obsess about eclipsing his more successful neighbor (Charley-South Korea) and drift back and forth between post-stroke flashback dream and reality, while his two sons (Biff/Jong-nam; Happy/Jong-un) debate the legacy of their dad and share their own, respective aspirations. There’s also, just like in the play, a mistress, Kim Ok.
The value of perceiving what’s going on in North Korea right now as an Off-Off-Off Broadway version of Death of a Salesman is that it contextualizes this kooky family in the proper stage light. Behind the specter of nuclear weapons is really nothing more than a wonky pre-ordained father-son drama, with the successive elements of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un spanning the same era as the successive anglo Salesman anchors of Arthur Kennedy, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and, this fall, Philip Seymour Hoffman.