IT would sound at home in the plot of a Hollywood spy drama, but as more details are confirmed following Tuesday’s assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korea ruler’s estranged half-brother, it appears the most astounding aspects are in fact true.
Jong Nam was killed in the middle of a busy airport in Kuala Lumpur after allegedly being poisoned by a female assassin, said to be an agent of North Korea.
With the finger of blame already poiting towards his own family’s regime, many will be questioning who was Kim Jong Nam and why is his death so important?
Kim Jong Nam was born in 1971, the son of leader Kim Jong Il and his consort, an actress named Song Hye Rim. But he grew up largely in secret, the result of founding president Kim Il Sung’s disapproval of his son’s relationship with Song, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, a specialist website devoted to the ruling Kim family.
Young Kim Jong Nam. pic.twitter.com/JYWpxhfLyV
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Jong Nam spent much of his early childhood growing up in two of Kim Jong Il’s personal residences in central and east Pyongyang, before leaving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1979 to attend school. He spent the next decade shuttling between international schools in Moscow and Geneva.
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He proved an accomplished student during his education, studying political science at Geneva University, developing an interest in computer science, and learning French, English and German before his return to DPRK in 1988.
Seen as the playboy son in the family, like his father before him, he reportedly has at least six children with several different women with whom he lived with at various points in his life.
In 1998 Kim Jong Nam was appointed to the DPRK Computer Committee, where he was responsible for a number of technology initiatives. He also facilitated use of the DPRK’s intranet for civilian use.
In 2001 – in a move that was widely publicised as an embarrassment to his father – Jong Nam, his first wife and his son were detained in Japan after trying to enter the country using false passports under the alias Pang Xiong – literally translated as “fat bear”. He told the authorities that they wanted to go to Tokyo Disneyland. The event is widely viewed as an awkward turning point in his relationship with his father that pushed him further out of favour with the regime.
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Throughout his adult life, Jong Nam was reportedly viewed as “North Korea’s only international playboy”, known for his gambling, extravagant spending and flamboyant lifestyle.
In a report from The Star, Jong Nam’s more bizarre escapades include arriving drunk at the Koryo Hotel and proceeding to shoot the place up as well as treating his son to a concert by South Korean pop stars.
In more recent years, however, Jong Nam is believed to have kept a low profile, living for a time in Macau and visiting Beijing and Singapore, where he had homes.
Fall from Grace
As the eldest son of second-generation leader Kim Jong Il, Jong Nam was long considered to be the natural heir to the family dynasty.
However, this theory was thrown into contention when his aunt revealed in an interview with the Washington Post, that Jong Nam had never been in the running for the position as the current leader was chosen as successor in the early 1990s, when he was only 8 years old.
It is believed that his efforts to flee to Japan, and the embarrassment that ensued, were enough to turn him into persona non grata within the regime, leading to his exile from DPRK. However, North Korean Leadership Watch claim that this widespread perception that Jong Nam was effectively exiled from the DPRK since 2001 is not accurate.
Jong Nam supported this theory when he himself claimed that he fell out of favour because he became an advocate for reform after being educated in Switzerland, leading his father to decide that he had turned “into a capitalist.”
In an email to the editor of Tokyo Shimbun, and reported by The Star, Jong Nam wrote: “After I went back to North Korea following my education in Switzerland, I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and market-opening, and was eventually viewed with suspicion.”
It is reported that Jong Nam went into hiding in Malaysia after the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek – a mentor to Jong Nam and North Korea’s second most powerful man before his execution on Kim Jong Un’s orders in 2013.
Reasons for his assassination
Despite stating publicly that he would do anything to help the new leader when his younger brother, Kim Jong Un, came to power, there were several reasons why he posed a threat to the firebrand dictator.
Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership expert at CNA, a research company in the U.S., said there were at least three possible reasons Kim Jong Un would want to get rid of his half-brother.
A common theory is that China was keeping Jong Nam in reserve as a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un, who has had strained relations with the Chinese leadership. It is likely Jong Un had him assassinated to remove this possibility and display to China that Beijing does not call the shots in the isolated nation.
Alternatively it could be that Kim Jong Un, who is only 33, is in the end stages of consolidating his leadership. “And when the consolidation phase comes to an end in totalitarian regimes, patronage systems can be targets for purges,” Gause said.
It is also possible that there is an internal power struggle occurring in Pyongyang and his half-brother wanted Jong Nam removed from the equation.
Whatever the reasons behind the assassination, it is looking increasingly likely that it was indeed at the hands of his half-brother, Kim Jong Un.
Mark Tokola, vice president at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, told News.com.au that it would be surprising if Kim Jong Nam was not killed on the orders of his brother, given that North Korean agents have reportedly tried to assassinate Kim Jong Nam in the past.
“It seems probable that the motivation for the murder was a continuing sense of paranoia on the part of Kim Jong Un, which may be a well-placed paranoia,” Tokola said.