The Big Search for Lil' Kim

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Yomiuri Shimbun / AP

Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, on a recent trip to Macau, January 30, 2007.

The plush chairs in the lobby of Macau's Mandarin Oriental Hotel are filled with a cadre of journalists looking distinctly slovenly in their luxurious surroundings. Tripods poke out from underneath couches, cameras rest on tables and reporters crane their necks to stare down the corridors. The object of the press pack's Friday night stakeout is not the Prime Minister of Portugal, here on a two-day visit to his country's former colony. Instead, we're hoping to catch a glimpse of a man known for getting busted trying to sneak into Japan to visit Tokyo Disney, and for his ability to drink 10 boilermakers in a sitting. That would be Kim Jong Nam, eldest son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

The South China Morning Post had reported the previous day that the 35-year-old was living large in the Chinese territory an hour's ferry ride from Hong Kong. Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun had even run a picture of Kim's distinctively pudgy progeny standing on a Macau street sporting sunglasses, a man-purse and a smile on his face. As the Dear Leader's eldest son, Jong Nam was once considered his father's likely successor. But after the 2001 Disney debacle, when he was stopped at Narita Airport with a forged Dominican Republic passport and then deported to China, Pyongyang watchers say Jong Nam has fallen from favor. But that didn't diminish the interest of the media, especially in Japan.

"North Korea is a number one concern for us," says Tsuyoshi Ikeda, a news director for Nippon Television, puffing on a cigarette in the Mandarin's lobby. "So it's important that we watch them."

That's easier said than done in a throbbing boomtown like Macau. In 2002 the government lifted a 40-year monopoly on casinos, prompting a gambling and tourism explosion that brought a record 22 million visitors to Macau last year. Fueled by punters from mainland China, it has surpassed the Las Vegas strip as the world's biggest gambling center. The territory has also been dragged into the current standoff between North Korea and the U.S. The U.S. Treasury Department has named Macau's Banco Delta Asia a "willing pawn" in money laundering for Pyongyang, prompting the territory's regulators to freeze $24 million in North Korean funds held by the bank. Amid that crackdown it may have been a bit embarrassing for a potential heir of the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom's ruler to pop up in the territory.

And pop up again. That Friday evening, Japan's TBS television broadcast footage of a man believed to be Kim Jong Nam walking to a cab. He was wearing a powder blue sport coat and pink shirt, and drinking a green beverage from a bottle. "Are you staying at the Mandarin hotel?" the reporter asked. "I cannot tell you," the man replied. "My privacy."

Like most of the other reporters, we had missed that encounter, so we return to the Mandarin.

An agitated TV cameraman sits on the edge of a couch. "Have you seen him?" I ask. "If I had seen him I wouldn't be here," he snaps. So we head out again, popping our heads into every club and casino we see. At the Grand Emperor Hotel, its entrance fronted by two gilded carriages, we ride an escalator to the amplified sound of jangling coins broadcast through the sound system. I doubt he's really here, but on a floor of slot machines, I ask hotel staff to page Mr. Kim. The woman behind the desk stares at me blankly. "I'm sorry sir," she says. "I can't turn off the music."

The next morning we head for an apartment that Kim keeps for his family, at least, that is, according a report in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo. It's in an exclusive waterfront development, but save for a sunflower image painted on its tile wall, "his" place looks identical to those around it. We ring the doorbell, but no one shows. A security guard gives us a dirty look, so we buzz off. Our options dwindling, we decide to call off our search. Perhaps we should have followed the lead of Nippon Television's Norihisa Kabaya, whom we had run into earlier that morning. He was patrolling a boardwalk near the black sand of Hac Sa beach, video camera rolling while his translator waved a blown-up photograph of the smiling Kim Jong Nam. "Have you seen this man?" the translator asked us. We have, but only in pictures.

—With reporting by Ishaan Tharoor/Macau