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