Kim Jong-nam, the 46-year old son of Kim Jong-il from his first (civilian) wife, actress Song Hye-rim, and the consanguine older brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed on February 13, 2017 at the Kuala-Lumpur International Airport.
The late was born on May 10, 1971 and studied at the International School of Berne and the University of Geneva. It is unclear whether he was ever regarded as Kim Jong-il’s successor. But in 2001, Kim Jong-nam was detained at the Narita International Airport while attempting to visit Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport and was deported to the People’s Republic of China. After that, he did not return to his homeland, living in Macao and Singapore and was more or less known as a playboy. International media outlets, however, portrayed him as the main North Korean dissident (although the DPRK’s criticism on his part was very rare and careful), the chief curator of the “party’s gold” in foreign banks (should such a murderous regime have such treasures and, if so, who better to keep an eye on them than the dictator’s brother) and as a secret heir to the throne or figure, who was ready to support China in that capacity (the truth about which Chinese politicians and scholars really did not know).
According to the local media, Kim Jong-nam was preparing to fly to Macao on February 13 at 10 a.m., using a forged passport under the false name of Kim Chol. However, he requested assistance at the airport’s medical clinic at approximately 9 a.m., complaining that he was suffering from severe pain, after which he died on the way to the Hospital Putrajaya. Since the identity of the deceased was not established immediately, the police only confirmed for some time that some Korean had been ill.
The media differ about the assassination attempt. The cable television channel TV Chosun (associated with the well-known newspaper Chosun Ilbo spreading fake news), citing an unnamed government source, argues that Kim Jong-nam was killed in the airport as a result of an attack by two unidentified women with poison needles, who managed to escape in a taxi. This version was widely publicized before the death had been confirmed by locals. Citing local police reports, the Associated Press stated that Kim Jong-nam requested for assistance due to a spray that had been splashed onto his face. According to the publication The Star, Kim Jong-nam was splashed in the face with a liquid, after which he suffered a headache. Another version claims that a woman clasped him from behind and threw a scarf that had been soaked in something over his head.
Malaysian police arrested two women and a man that were suspects in the murder. The twenty-eight year-old Vietnamese citizen Doan Thi Huong, who was identified wearing a bright t-shirt with the inscription LOL from surveillance camera records, was arrested on the morning of February 15, while attempting to fly to Hanoi. The second suspect, a 25 year-old woman from Indonesia who had a plane ticket to Seoul, was arrested at the same airport the next day.
During police interrogation, Doan revealed that she and her friend had become acquainted with four men, who invited her to play a trick on their friend while vacationing in Malaysia. They asked her to first spray a liquid from a container onto a handkerchief and then throw it over his face. One of the men, according to Doan, had a North Korean appearance, while the other, who was a Malaysian citizen, was arrested in Kuala Lumpur on February 16.
While such a story raises a lot of questions, it is expected that Kim Jong-un was named as the organizer of the murder. During a meeting with the deputies of the National Assembly on February 15, the Head of the National Intelligence Service, Lee Byung-hun, said that his service learned of the incident in Malaysia four hours after it had taken place, as several assassination attempts on Kim Jong-nam, who was under the protection of China, had been previously made by Pyongyang over a 5-year span. Lee Byung-hun confirmed that the cause of death of the North Korean leader’s brother was poisoning, which had been introduced into his body by a needle or a chemical spray.
At the same meeting, Lee explained that Kim Jong-nam had never appealed to South Korea to grant him asylum. He ignored the advice that was given to him by his friends, and sent a letter to his younger brother in 2012, in which he asked him to save his life and the lives of his family members. A statement in the letter read that “Kim Jong-nam reassured his brother, who had come to power in North Korea, that neither he nor his children would claim authority and want a quiet life outside of North Korea.”
An emergency meeting of the National Security Council under the President, led by the Acting President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Hwang Kyo-ahn, was held in Seoul on the same day. Its participants discussed the question and details of the possible impact this event would have on the political situation on the Korean Peninsula. Hwang Kyo-ahn stated that the government refers to this matter seriously- if it turns out that the murder was committed under the initiative of North Korean authorities, it will serve as further proof of the cruelty and anti-humane regime of Kim Jong-un. Hwang Kyo-ahn instructed the international community to work together in increasing its pressure on Pyongyang in order to force Kim Jong-un to change his current policy. Military forces were called to be ready for provocations of the North.
As for the opposition, Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the Democratic Party Toburo, stated that the Government of South Korea should not politicize the murder of Kim Jong-nam under the pretext of national defense: murder raises tensions in inter-Korean relations, and authorities cannot exaggerate or hide information.
If Hwang Kyo-ahn or Lee Byung-hun had not announced the North Korean involvement openly, experts in South Korea and the West would have done so, citing that no other reasons for the need of Kim Jong-un to kill his brother existed outside of his natural inclination towards evil, which the head of a “tyrannical regime” cannot help but possess. Some say that the murder took place due to Kim’s power being unstable and is trying to frighten his people. It shows that he is prepared to kill his own brother for the sake of maintaining power. Others believe that the incident is a confirmation of the inviolability of Kim’s authority, his readiness to execute for the slightest criticism or of his cruel and impulsive nature. They even recalled that the deceased was the eldest son of Kim Jong-il’s first wife, as Kim Jong-un- from his third wife. Therefore, the mere fact of his existence disturbed his brother.
Ultimately, when Kim Jong-un appeared in public clearly looking gloomy and tired on February 16, South Korean scribes immediately interpreted his bad mood as one that was NOT connected to the death of his brother: “By the expression of the North Korean leader’s face it can be deduced that he is concerned about the unstable political situation or experiencing feelings of remorse: this is connected with the fact that the government is rapidly losing the respect and trust of the people.”
Nevertheless, the author still thinks that, despite the odious nature of the North Korean regime, he will not commit any acts in which the harm knowingly exceeds the potential benefits. In a situation where, following the launch of a new type of medium-range missiles, the question of how to deal with North Korea is being discussed at a very serious level along with talks about the admissibility of pre-emptive strikes, affirm the image of a mad regime, of which the head is willing to kill his own brother is precisely a “shot in the foot” that would dispel any notions of its ability to negotiate. In addition, Malaysia is a police state, and the probability of losing an agent is quite high because an unmasked killer sharing the details of the attempt while being recorded- is not only a blow to their credibility, but also an occasion to include North Korea once again on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, which conservatives are actively seeking in South Korea and the United States.
Is it possible to find any other persons who hire killers? The bold statements made by South Korean spies and journalists, which described the key details of the assassination attempt before other necessary information had even emerged, with the proper bias or conspiracy vein may very well be interpreted as an indication of the formal or informal involvement of Seoul, since it is undoubtedly a beneficiary. It would not be a forgone conclusion, with the charge of fratricide already thrown in, as the North has received its share of demonization. It is also important to recall the recent announcement of the creation of a special unit for the elimination of Kim Jong-un in South Korea, which, most likely, “decided to train it with its brothers”.
Additionally to the official Seoul, can be non-official Seoul, for example, a totalitarian Protestant sect or secret society among the security forces whose members decided to play Ahn Jung Geun. Incidentally, this may well consist of defectors from North Korea, who are morally prepared in the case of failure not only to sacrifice themselves, but to give themselves up as the killers from Pyongyang in order to relish in the unsuccessfulness of the provocation.
We are still not eliminating the criminal or domestic crime versions. However, if irrefutable piece of evidence of the murder which proves that it was NOT performed on behalf of Pyongyang does not appear in the future, North Korea’s involvement in the death of Kim Jong-nam will shape the element of discourse. Any other facts will fall within its framework. No traces of poison were found- it was a secret poison that does not leave any traces behind. The investigation has arrived at different conclusions- it was pressed or authorities were afraid of an international scandal.
Thus- we are waiting for the facts.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”