Where in the World Is Kim Jong Nam?

Reports say Kim Jong Il's eldest son is now under "Chinese protection" after leaving the island of Macau. But like most things in the Hermit Kingdom, it's hard to know for sure.

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AP Photo / Yomiuri Shimbun

A man who calls himself Kim Jong Nam is seen in Macau, the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, in this photo taken on January 30, 2007.

Where in the world is Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il? Spurred by the recent death of his father, the plot in this guessing game has just thickened.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported on Dec. 26 that he has surfaced in Beijing, arriving “a few days ago” from the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau, where he is reportedly based. Citing a source familiar with Kim’s activity, Yonhap said he has been placed “under the Chinese protection.”

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The news comes as North Korea prepares to bury its “Dear Leader” in a sure-to-be elaborate state funeral on Dec. 28. Kim Jong Nam, 40, was once thought to be favored to succeed his father, but plans changed long ago and younger brother Kim Jong Un has instead been heralded the “Great Successor.” Whether the eldest son will attend the ceremony in the capital, Pyongyang, is the will-he-won’t-he question of the moment. As with most things related to the so-called Hermit Kingdom, there’s just no reliable way of knowing.

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Media reports have claimed Kim Jong Nam was living overseas for years, based in a quiet housing complex on the southernmost island of Coloane in Macau. But when TIME visited the property on Dec. 26, it appeared to be deserted. Neighbors said Kim had moved out “some time ago.”

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Some analysts suggest he was banished to the Chinese territory after falling out of favor with his father for trying to enter Japan using a false passport in 2001. The incident proved embarrassing for North Korea, with Kim telling Japanese immigration officials he wanted to visit Disneyland.

But other observers speculate that he may be based in the former Portuguese colony to help the Kim regime launder money through a shady web of banks and casinos. In 2007, Macau’s Banco Delta Asia agreed to dissolve all ties with North Korea after the U.S. Treasury accused the bank of acting as the country’s “willing pawn.”

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