Korean Peninsula still suffering 'strife of princes'
Confucianism and umbrage have often mixed with tragic results
HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer
SEOUL -- A month has passed since North Korea's Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in Malaysia. There is strong suspicion the murder was committed by Pyongyang, and the South Korean government alleges North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Jong Nam's half-brother, was behind the crime.
Experts are now describing the incident as the latest example of the "strife of princes," referring to an episode from Korean history.
South Korea's intelligence agency alleges that five years ago Jong Un issued the highest standing order to assassinate his half-brother, whom he saw as a potential threat to his power.
The incident recalls some palace intrigue from the early part of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).
Soon after founding the dynasty, Yi Seong-gye, the dynasty's founder, also known as Taejo of Joseon, declared that his eighth and last son -- born to him and his second wife -- to be crown prince.
The boy, still very young, was Yi's favorite son.
Yi's fifth son -- the crown prince's half-brother who had played a prominent role in his father's rise to power -- was indignant and conspired to kill the eighth son.
The fifth son acted -- killing the named successor along with the seventh son, who was born to the same mother as the crown prince -- and took virtual control of the kingdom.
There was subsequently a disturbance by the fourth son, instigated by some generals, but after this was stomped out, there were no opposing forces to the fifth son, who finally ascended to the throne and proceeded to wield strong power.
The Korean Peninsula has seen plenty of fraternal struggles since then. A recent example comes from South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate.
In 2000, Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung named his fifth son as his successor. The first son had already died, but the second son took the decision with umbrage. He subsequently led Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, which he himself helped grow, to leave the group as separate entities. The third and sixth sons also left the group.
The fifth son took over the North Korean business, his father's pet project in his later years, but an allegation arose that he may have illegally sent $500 million to North Korea. During a break from prosecutors' interrogation on the matter, he jumped from the 12th floor of a building to his death.
The Lotte group provides another example of brotherly strife. The group was founded in Japan by Shin Kyuk-ho, a first-generation ethnic Korean resident in the country. Lotte grew to have operations in both countries, with the Japanese operations led by Kyuk-ho's eldest son, Dong-joo, and the South Korean operations by Dong-bin, the second son.
The dual leadership ended in January 2015, when the founder dismissed the eldest son from the company's management, with the second son becoming the sole leader. An ugly rivalry between the brothers ensued and is ongoing, although Dong-bin has denied that the rivalry continues.
Hereditary succession can be advantageous for South Korea's large conglomerates. It often allows powerful leaders to make bold decisions that the companies can quickly execute. Its dark side, though, is that it has often led to family feuds over the right to steer a group or inherit assets.
Because of their Confucian culture, Koreans attach importance to seniority, and when the leader picks a sibling who is not the eldest, it tends to cause strife.
Let us circle back to Kim Jong Nam. He is said to have lost the chance to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il, after he was once detained trying to sneak into Japan through Narita Airport, then deported. The incident embarrassed his father.
More recently, there was speculation that the Chinese government, whose relationship with Kim Jong Un has not been smooth, may have been hatching a plot to replace him with Jong Nam, who would then be under Beijing's influence.
Jong Un's China paranoia may have manifested itself years ago. In 2013, Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed. The uncle had strong ties with China.
Now the life of Jong Nam's son, Kim Han Sol, may be in danger. Han Sol could be regarded as a legitimate successor to Jong Un, according to Thae Yong Ho, a former minister of North Korean Embassy in the U.K. The former envoy said Jong Un likely cannot tolerate Han Sol being alive.