The last time Kim Jong Nam made the headlines he was also at an airport, travelling under a false name. In 2001 “Fat Bear”—the Chinese alias used by the son of North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il—was arrested after arriving in Tokyo on a forged Dominican Republic passport, on his way to Disneyland. This time it was “Kim Chol” who was waiting for a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Macau on February 13th when two women assumed to be North Korean agents attacked him. He is said to have died on his way to hospital.
As The Economist went to press, the results of an autopsy had not yet been released. Rumours suggest that Mr Kim was poisoned, with a needle, spray or toxic cloth to the face. Malaysian police said they thought six people had been involved in the attack; they have detained two women and one man, travelling on Vietnamese and Indonesian passports.
The 45-year-old Mr Kim had once been Kim Jong Il’s favourite son: witnesses described a 10,000-square-foot playroom filled with toys. Before each birthday, North Korean diplomats would be sent on a month-long hunt for exotic presents. A cousin of his who defected in 1982 said that Kim Jong Il would take his son to the grand halls of state and say, “Jong Nam, this is where you’ll be able to talk big one day.”
But in the end it was Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, born to his second wife and educated, like his half-brother, in Switzerland, who succeeded their father in 2011. Kim Jong Nam was not visible at his father’s funeral. He was known in recent years to have been living in exile in Macau, a semi-autonomous enclave within China.Since the 30-something Kim Jong Un came to power, he has consolidated power by executing about 140 senior officials, most notably his uncle and security chief, Jang Song Thaek. Yet exile had typically been the fate of members of the Kim family who had fallen out of favour. Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, Kim Pyong Il, was sent abroad on never-ending diplomatic service, for instance. (Jang was not a blood relative of Jong Un, unlike Jong Nam.) Some say Jong Nam was sidelined by Jong Un’s mother and her family long before his Disneyland disgrace. As a political irrelevance, he had seemed likely to survive Jong Un’s purges.
The Macanese candidate
Wild rumours had circulated in the South Korean press that Jong Nam had conspired against his brother with Jang. Jong Nam had been close to Jang, who was his escort during his school days in Switzerland. But Michael Madden, who runs “North Korea Leadership Watch”, a blog, says tales of fraternal hostility have been overdone. Some sources say Jong Nam did in fact attend a private family funeral for his father in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist with whom Jong Nam exchanged 100-odd e-mails from 2004, quoted him in a book in 2012 as having said that he wanted to “co-operate” with his half-brother.
It is possible that Jong Nam was involved in financial dealings that Jong Un wanted to wind up. Some suspect he was laundering money through Macau’s casinos. Mr Madden says he had ties with Office 39, a department that seeks foreign income for the Kim regime through illicit means. More likely, however, is that Jong Nam simply irritated his half-brother by criticising him. Mr Gomi quoted him as saying Jong Un would “not last” as leader. Around the same time his son called the North Korean regime a “dictatorship” on a Finnish talk show. Given that North Korean officials have been executed for slumping in their chairs at meetings, such comments would surely qualify as capital offences.
Jong Nam was thought to have been under the protection of the Chinese security services. China’s government, which had had good relations with Jang, is bound to be irked by the murder of yet another protégé. Kim Kwang Jin, a defector who once worked in North Korea’s “royal court” economy, says that even if rumours that China had hoped to install Jong Nam if Jong Un fell from power are far-fetched, China would nonetheless have seen Jong Nam as useful leverage.
North Korea frequently irks China, however, without changing its apparent conclusion that a violent nuclear dictatorship makes a better neighbour than a unified Korea packed with American troops. The timing, hard on the heels of a North Korean missile test (see article), is probably coincidental. North Korea had been trying to kill Jong Nam for some time, according to South Korea’s spooks: a North Korean spy jailed by South Korea in 2012 allegedly confessed to planning a hit-and-run on him in China. And given how little clout he seems to have had in North Korea, there is no hint that his murder is a sign of turmoil within the regime.