LONDON — It is only 40 seconds long, but the video purportedly showing Kim Han Sol, a nephew of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, added another turn to an already astonishing series of events on Tuesday.
“My father has been killed a few days ago. I’m currently with my mother and my sister,” he says, seconds after holding what appears to be a North Korean passport into the camera to prove his identity. The details of the document are censored in the uploaded version of the video.
Kim Han Sol’s father, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia in mid-February. The murder has since sparked a diplomatic row between North Korea and Malaysia after authorities there declared the man had been killed with a chemical weapon. Malaysian authorities refused to release the body without DNA identification from next of kin and insisted on carrying out an autopsy.
According to two individuals who studied with him, concerns over his safety date back years, however. They could become more pressing due to the attention the video has drawn on him, regardless over whether its authenticity can be fully confirmed.
Despite being aware of the risks associated, Kim Han Sol has commented before in private and in public on his family’s reign in North Korea. In 2012, he criticized his uncle Kim Jong Un, speaking on Finnish television. “I don’t really know how he became a dictator because first of all it was between him and my grandfather,” he said.
Kim Jong Nam was the half brother of Kim Jong Un — they shared a father, Kim Jong Il — but are thought to have met only once, at their grandfather’s funeral in 1994. Kim Han Sol has said he has never met his uncle, who became the leader of North Korea five years ago.
Kim Han Sol elaborated on his open-minded political views in the same interview, saying: “I’ve always dreamed that one day I would go back and make things better, and make things easier for the people back there. I also dream of unification,” he said, referring to hopes that the divided north and the south might one day reunify.
Now aged 21 or 22, he grew up in Pyongyang but was forced to move to Macau, a special administrative region of China, in the early 2000s after Kim Jong Nam fell out with his father and was exiled in 2003.
He first attended the United World College in Bosnia. After 2012, Kim Han Sol went on to study at the Le Havre campus of the French university Sciences Po, where he lived under police protection, according to one of his fellow students who says he was last in touch with him several months ago. The student talked to The Washington Post under the condition of not being named due to fears over his safety.
On campus, Kim Han Sol was rarely heard discussing politics. Another former fellow student, who provided a photograph showing himself with Han Sol in spring 2014, described him as not actively seeking to discuss North Korea. “It’s not something that he brings up himself. I don’t imagine him to be the type who would intentionally get into an argument with his peers,” he said, adding that visible security mechanisms on campus were relaxed in the final year of his studies there.
Kim Han Sol told friends in France that he returned to North Korea regularly. However, fears over his personal safety appear to have increased more recently and he reached out to several of them over the last months, asking them to help protect his privacy.
“Han Sol basically shut down his social media profiles and asked us to kindly untag him from photos so that people wouldn’t be able to [find] him on Facebook,” one of his former friends recalled. He said he was not aware of a specific incident that might have prompted the decision. Han Sol had been “steadily decreasing his social media presence over the last few years,” he said.
In 2011, multiple news outlets reported on social media posts published by Kim Han Sol. Many of those posts were later deleted.
French police protection of him was described as “low-key” by one of his former friends. It is unknown to what extent his protection continued after he left the country. According to media reports, Kim Han Sol planned to attend Oxford University starting later this year.
The assassination of his father could make a continuation of his studies or a life under relatively normal circumstances less likely, however. In Tuesday’s video, the man believed to be Kim Han Sol ends his message saying: “We hope this gets better soon.”