Kim Jong Nam, the hunted heir

Once-favoured son in North Korea meets death in Malaysia, ful­fill­ing half brother Kim Jong Un’s ‘stand­ing or­der’ to kill him


When North Korea held a state fu­neral for its leader, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, one son was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent.

The ab­sence of Kim Jong Nam — the el­dest son of the fam­ily, who was bound by Korean tra­di­tion to pre­side over the fu­neral — was all the ev­i­dence out­side an­a­lysts needed to see how iso­lated he had be­come from the cen­tre of power i n North Korea, the world’s most se­cre­tive regime.

Never fully ac­cepted by his f am­ily, side­lined by his pow­er­ful step­mother and haunted by fears of as­sas­sins, Kim Jong Nam lived much of his life wan­der­ing abroad, in Moscow, Geneva, Bei­jing, Paris and Ma­cau, the Chi­nese gam­bling en­clave.

On Mon­day, Kim, 45, met his end at Kuala Lumpur In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Malaysia. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice of South Korea, he was poi­soned by two women who ap­peared to be car­ry­ing out an as­sas­si­na­tion or­der from Py­ongyang, the North Korean cap­i­tal. Kim died on his way to the hospi­tal.

Malaysian po­lice have ar­rested three peo­ple in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion but have re­leased few de­tails.

It re­mains uncer­tain if Kim was trav­el­ling alone or if body­guards were present. It was also un­clear how many peo­ple were in­volved in the at­tack and whether air­port cam­eras cap­tured the episode.

Grainy footage re­leased Wed­nes­day showed a woman sus­pected of be­ing one of the as­sas­sins, who ap­peared to be of Asian de­scent and wore a shirt em­bla­zoned with “LOL” in large let­ters, be­fore she fled the air­port.

The Royal Malaysia Po­lice an­nounced late Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon that they had ar­rested a woman about 8:20 a.m. and that she had been car­ry­ing a Viet­namese pass­port in Ter­mi­nal 2, where the at­tack oc­curred. They said she was “pos­i­tively iden­ti­fied” from closed-cir­cuit video, and was alone at the time of her ar­rest.

But of­fi­cials here quickly pointed fin­gers at Kim’s half brother, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has or­dered the ex­e­cu­tion of a num­ber of se­nior of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing his own un­cle, who have been deemed a po­ten­tial chal­lenge to his au­thor­ity.

As of Fri­day, North Korea says it will “cat­e­gor­i­cally re­ject” the re­sults of an au­topsy on Kim Jong Nam, say­ing Malaysia con­ducted the au­topsy “uni­lat­er­ally” and pre­vented North Korean rep­re­sen­ta­tives from at­tend­ing.

With the au­topsy com­plete, North Korean diplo­mats were seek­ing the re­turn of the body. But Malaysian po­lice said Fri­day that it would not be handed over with­out a DNA sam­ple from a fam­ily mem­ber. So far, no fam­ily mem­ber or next of kin has come for­ward, ac­cord­ing to po­lice.

Ever since Kim Jong Un suc­ceeded his f ather in 2011, “there has been a stand­ing or­der” to as­sas­si­nate his half brother, said Lee Byung-ho, the di­rec­tor of the South’s Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, dur­ing a closed-door brief­ing at the Na­tional Assem­bly, ac­cord­ing to law­mak­ers who at­tended it.

“This is not a cal­cu­lated ac­tion to re­move Kim Jong Nam be­cause he was a chal­lenge to power per se, but rather re­flected Kim Jong Un’s para­noia,” Lee was quoted as say­ing.

Kim Jong Un wanted his half brother killed, Lee said, and there was an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt against him in 2012. Kim Jong Nam was so afraid of as­sas­sins that he begged for his life in a let­ter to his half brother in 2012.

“Please with­draw the or­der to pun­ish me and my fam­ily,” Kim Jong Nam was quoted as say­ing in the let­ter. “We have nowhere to hide. The only way to es­cape is to choose sui­cide.”

Lee said that Kim Jong Nam had no power base in­side North Korea, where Kim Jong Un had swiftly es­tab­lished his mono­lithic rule with what the South called a reign of ter­ror.

Kim Jong Nam had ar­rived in Malaysia last week, Lee said. He was in line at the air­port to check in for a flight to Ma­cau on Mon­day morn­ing when he was at­tacked by the two women, Lee said, cit­ing se­cu­rity cam­era footage from the air­port. The women fled the air­port in a taxi, but were still be­lieved to be in Malaysia, Lee said.

If North Korea’s in­volve­ment is proved, Wash­ing­ton could face in­tense pres­sure to put the coun­try back on its list of na­tions that spon­sor ter­ror­ism, said Cheong Seong-chang, an an­a­lyst at the Se­jong In­sti­tute, a think-tank in South Korea.

North Korea was first put on the ter­ror­ism list after the South caught a woman from the North who con­fessed to plant­ing a bomb on a South Korean air­liner that ex­ploded over the In­dian Ocean, near Myan­mar, in 1987. The North was taken off the list in 2008, after a deal aimed at end­ing its nu­clear pro­gram.

“By as­sas­si­nat­ing Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un may have re­moved a thorn in the side, but it will fur­ther iso­late his coun­try,” Cheong said. “It is also ex­pected to worsen his coun­try’s re­la­tions with China, which has been pro­tect­ing his brother.”

Kim Jong Nam’s life il­lu­mi­nates the hid­den in­trigue in­side the Kim fam­ily, which has ruled North Korea for al­most seven decades.

While the lives of the rest of the fami- ly re­mained shrouded in mys­tery, Kim Jong Nam, the old­est of three known sons of Kim Jong Il, has been the clos­est thing the iso­lated Stal­in­ist state has had to an in­ter­na­tional play­boy.

He was of­ten seen with fash­ion­ably­dressed women in in­ter­na­tional air­ports and spent much of his time in casi­nos in Ma­cau, where he also kept an ex­pen­sive house.

Out­side an­a­lysts of­ten saw him as a pos­si­ble can­di­date to re­place Kim Jong Un if the North Korean lead­er­ship im­ploded and China, tra­di­tion­ally an ally, sought a re­place­ment in its client state.

Chi­nese ex­perts on North Korea said they doubted Kim Jong Nam had spe­cial se­cu­rity pro­tec­tion from Bei­jing.

“Chi­nese elites had no ex­pec­ta­tion this guy could play an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal role,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Ren­min Univer­sity.

“If China wanted to use him as an al­ter­na­tive leader, China would have of­fered good pro­tec­tion, but this as­sas­si­na­tion shows he had no se­cu­rity pro­tec­tion.”

In Ma­cau, where Kim Jong Nam was headed, he was safe just by be­ing there, said Zhang Bao­hui, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Asian Pa­cific Stud­ies at Ling­nan Univer­sity in Hong Kong.

His wife and a daugh­ter and son are in Ma­cau un­der Chi­nese pro­tec­tion, Lee said.

The Kim fam­ily has never been known for its to­geth­er­ness. Kim Jong Nam’s mother, Sung Hae Rim, a dec­o­rated “peo­ple’s ac­tress,” was al­ready mar­ried with a child when Kim Jong Il forced her to di­vorce her nov­el­ist hus­band to marry him. Kim Jong Il adored his first son, Kim Jong Nam.

He once seated his young son at his of­fice desk and told him, “This is the place where you will one day give or­ders,” ac­cord­ing to Lee Han Young, a rel­a­tive who de­fected to the South in 1982.

But Kim Jong Nam’s grand­fa­ther, the North’s found­ing pres­i­dent, Kim Il Sung, never ap­proved of the mar­riage.

Kim Jong Nam was born in se­cret, and when his mother fell out of favour with Kim Jong Il and was forced to live in Moscow, he was left in the care of her sis­ter. He was later sent to Geneva, where he learned English and French. (His mother was alone i n Moscow when she died in 2002.)

But ru­mours of in­trigue never left Kim Jong Nam, as an­a­lysts spec­u­lated that if the young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced Kim Jong Un failed to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of hard-line gen­er­als in Py­ongyang, they might sum­mon home the el­dest brother. In a way, Kim Jong Nam helped fuel such ru­mours.

In a 2012 book by a Ja­panese jour­nal­ist, Kim Jong Nam called his younger brother “a fig­ure­head.”

“With­out re­forms and lib­er­al­iza­tion, the col­lapse of the econ­omy is within sight,” he said. “I have my doubts about whether a per­son with only two years of groom­ing as a leader can gov­ern.”

Top: Kim Jong Nam, exiled half brother of Kim Jong Un, in Ja­pan in 2001. He died in Malaysia on Mon­day after an in­ci­dent at the air­port.


North Kore­ans gather dur­ing a mass rally in Py­ongyang in early Jan­uary to vow to carry through the tasks set forth by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in his New Year’s ad­dress.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

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