On February 13th, Kim Jong-nam was killed in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. His death is tragic, yet also extremely confusing. As the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, Kim Jong-nam lived an interesting life. Originally groomed to lead after his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong-nam instead fell out of favor with his father and lived the last decade of his life in China and Macau. His life and death were both unclear, but both tell a lot about the Kim regime.
Kim Jong-nam started his life in his father’s favor. He was still in his late twenties when his father appointed him to a high-level position in the North Korean government. However, he fell out of favor due to multiple ‘embarrassing’ situations, such as being detained at the Tokyo Narita airport in 2001 when attempting to visit Tokyo Disney. Kim Jong-nam also became an advocate for reform in North Korea, which sealed his fate of not succeeding his father. In My Father, Kim Jon Il, and Me by Yoji Gomi, based on his interviews of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-nam remarked that his half-brother Kim Jong Un was inexperienced and the Kim regime would collapse. His criticism of the current Kim regime might have been enough to have him assassinated.
On February 13th, Kim Jong-nam was flying back to Macau from Malaysia when two women sprayed a poisonous liquid on his face. Four arrests have been made in this case, the two women, a Malaysian man, and a North Korean man. One of the women, an Indonesian national, has reportedly told police that they were tricked into thinking they were part of a comedy prank show. Police are also on the hunt for four more North Korean men, who are believed to have fled the country after the attack.
Many blame Kim Jong Un for his brother’s assassination. The Malaysian government has recalled their ambassador from North Korea, increasing hostilities on both sides. There have been disagreements on where Kim’s body should go, and who should investigate the crime. South Korea was quick to put the blame on the Kim regime, and China is reportedly also blaming the Kim regime for his death. After he had lived under the protection of the Chinese government, to have Jong-nam killed would be an affront by the Kim regime.
Why would Kim Jong-un want his half-brother dead? Kim Jong-nam vocally had no interest in leading the country, so therefore he posed no threat to Kim Jong Un’s power. Yet, as with many news stories that come out of North Korea, there is little information. Because we know little about North Korea and the inner workings of the Kim regime, it is unclear if and why Kim Jong Un had Kim Jong-nam killed. One explanation is that China or another country could have used him as a backup leader if they wanted to oust Kim Jong Un. As the Malaysian government digs deeper into this crime, we will hopefully have more information about Kim’s apparent assassination, and can extrapolate what that information tells us about the Kim regime.
Laurel Anderson is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School focusing on Diplomacy and Security. She is also ExPatt Magazine’s Digital Editor. She received her bachelor’s degree at Centre College with a major in International Relations and a minor in Asian Studies. Her primary interests include democracy in Asia, Asian security, and the rise of China.