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The sad story of Kim Jong Chul, the North Korean leader's brother and Eric Clapton megafan (w/video)

Published May 24, 2015

Since becoming supreme leader of North Korea in December 2011, Kim Jong Un has not publicly announced any foreign trips, leading some to suspect that the young autocrat has some kind of aversion to international travel. This policy of avoiding foreign travel clearly does not extend to all members of the Kim family: Just this week, his elder brother was spotted in London.

The sighting of a member of one of the world's most notorious political dynasties in the West would be newsworthy in itself. But what's also remarkable is what Kim Jong Chul was apparently doing in the British capital. He was seen at an Eric Clapton concert at the Royal Albert Hall. And it appears he didn't just go once: According to NK News, he may have gone to see Clapton two nights in a row.

"He was having a great time, singing along to all the words," Simeon Paterson, a BBC journalist who saw Kim Jong Chul at one of the concerts, said. South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the North Korean entourage appeared to have been staying at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, where rooms can cost more than $3,000 a night.

Surprisingly, this isn't even the first time the world has caught wind of Kim Jong Chul's love of the British guitarist. In 2011, a South Korean intelligence official said that Kim Jong Chul had been seen at a Clapton concert in Singapore. And in 2006, he was reported to have followed Clapton's tour to four different German cities.

Perhaps just as notable as Kim Jong Chul's appearance in London has been his physical appearance while attending the shows. In a video shot by a Japanese TV news crew, Kim Jong Chul is shown wearing a black leather jacket and shades: He looks almost as much of a rock star as Clapton. And for Kim Jong Chul, this may be a relatively unflashy outfit — when he was spotted in Singapore in 2006, he was said to be sporting pierced ears.

As superfluous as it may seem, Kim Jong Chul's taste in music and his appearance may actually say quite a bit about North Korean politics. Kim Jong Un, now the leader of the North Korea, is the youngest of his father Kim Jong Il's three sons. The eldest, Kim Jong Nam, was believed to be Kim Jong Il's heir apparent until he was arrested in 2001 in Narita International Airport in Tokyo for traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport.

Kim Jong Nam was deported to China (he apparently told investigators he had been hoping to head to Tokyo Disneyland). His father canceled an official trip to China afterward out of embarrassment, and Kim Jong Nam subsequently fell out of favor. He is now believed to live in Macau. "He has often been spotted dining and drinking in Macau restaurants and gambling in casinos and on slot machines," the South China Morning Post wrote in 2007.

With Kim Jong Nam out of the picture, you might assume that Kim Jong Chul, the middle son, would be the natural choice for a new heir. He was not. While it's not exactly clear what led him to be passed over for his younger brother, Kenji Fujimoto, a pseudonym for Kim Jong Il's personal sushi chef, later wrote in his memoir that the North Korean leader thought Kim Jong Chul was too effeminate.

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"The older brother, Jong-Chul, had the warm heart of a girl," Fujimoto wrote.

Exactly what that means is anyone's guess. Perhaps an interest in British rock music and leather jackets was part of it, but it probably wasn't all of it. According to Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989, a book by Hyung Gu Lynn, Kim Jong Chul wrote a poem when he was a child studying in Switzerland that said his ideal world would have no weapons or atom bombs and people would be free. (To be fair, perhaps too much shouldn't be read into a poem by a child: The text also suggests a desire to meet Hollywood action movie hero Jean-Claude van Damme).

According to Fujimoto, Kim Jong Un had a harder attitude than his older brother. "The younger prince, Jong Un, was a boy of inner strength," the former personal chef wrote. It's possible that we're already seeing this in action — the number of reported executions in North Korea since he took over is remarkable, with many reportedly by methods that suggest a horrifying brutality under Kim Jong Un.

But Kim Jong Un, like his brother, may have a softer side: He has already revealed a love of basketball and Disney. What's different is that he has succeeded in bringing these interests to him, either by convincing Dennis Rodman to come to North Korea or skirting intellectual copyright laws with Disney.

Kim Jong Chul hasn't had the same luck: U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks suggest that in 2007, North Korea reached out to Clapton to see whether he would perform in the country. They were apparently rebuffed.