The eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has returned home after spending years abroad in a move that could be linked to the ruler's plans to choose an heir, a man close to Kim's son said yesterday.
Kim Jong-nam, 36, traveled from China to Pyongyang in late June, and his return "has decisive relations to the power transfer," the man said by telephone from the US. He asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
South Korea's top spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, declined to confirm the son's return.
Kim Jong-il has not yet publicly named an heir, prompting speculation abroad about who might eventually take the country's helm -- and whether Kim will designate one of his sons as the next leader, continuing the world's only communist dynasty.
Kim took over the leadership of North Korea following the death in 1994 of his father, national founder Kim Il-sung.
The South's spy agency had said in a report earlier this year that another father-to-son succession appears highly likely in the North. However, it indicated that there is also the possibility of a collective leadership in case of Kim Jong-il's sudden death.
The elder Kim is said to be suffering from heart disease and diabetes, but the National Intelligence Service has also said his health is not believed to be as bad as some media reported in recent months. The agency said there was no sign that chronic diseases are affecting his public activities.
The junior Kim "has played a key role in North Korea," and his return means "he will proceed to the next step" in plans outlined for him, said the man in the US, who said he has developed a close business relationship with the leader's son and has been in contact with him.
Those plans involve South Korea's aid to the North, the North's relations with the US and the replacement of a ceasefire that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War with a peace treaty, the man said, without giving further details.
The junior Kim has long been believed to have fallen out of favor after embarrassing his father in 2001, when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
But the man said the allegation was made by South Korea to discredit the junior Kim as a possible successor.