TOKYO – The target: the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The setting: an airport in Malaysia. And a possible suspect: A woman killer carrying a cloth treated with lethal liquid.
It adds up to a case that seems ripped straight from the pages of spy novel.
Even by the standards of sensational news from North Korea, the details that emerged Tuesday were astounding.
Malaysian police confirmed that Kim Jong Nam – who was thought to be 45 and living outside North Korea for more than a decade – had been killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport early Monday while waiting for a flight to Macau, a center of gambling and nightlife that was among his haunts.
“A woman came from behind and covered his face with a cloth laced with a liquid,” police chief Fadzil Ahmat told Bernama, the Malaysian state news agency.
The man was seen struggling for help and sought assistance from airport staff, he said. He was sent to hospital in an ambulance, but died on the way, Fadzil said.
“I have conveyed the matter to the North Korean Embassy,” he said, adding that an autopsy was planned to seek the cause of death.
His statement came after South Korean news outlets reported an even more outlandish version of events: that Kim Jong Nam was pricked with poisoned needles by two female agents who then escaped by taxi.
North Korea, with its secretive and idiosyncratic leadership, is often the subject of dramatic tales that turn out to be exaggerated or flat-out wrong.
But the Malaysian police chief’s confirmation suggests at least part of this story is true. What is likely to take much longer to determine is whether the plot was orchestrated directly by Kim Jong Un, who recently celebrated five years at the helm of North Korea and is now locked in a showdown with the international community over his nuclear ambitions.
Regardless, it underscores the transience of power North Korea.
Just three years ago, Kim Jong Un had his uncle – and Kim Jong Nam’s mentor – executed on suspicion of building an alternate power base. Meanwhile, a slew of high-profile defections have raised questions about the stability of the regime.
“Kim Jong Nam was involved in some funny business,” said Michael Madden, editor of North Korea Leadership Watch, a specialist website devoted to the ruling Kim family. He was rumored to have worked in computing in North Korea – now notorious for cyberattacks – and money laundering through Southeast Asia.
Analysts had long considered Kim Jong Nam, as the oldest son of second-generation leader Kim Jong Il, to be the natural heir to the family dynasty.
But this assumption was thrown into doubt in 2001 when Kim Jong Nam was caught at Narita airport in Tokyo, trying to enter Japan with his wife and son on fake Dominican Republic passports. Kim Jong Nam’s bore the name Pang Xiong – “fat bear” in Mandarin Chinese. He told the authorities they wanted to go to Tokyo Disneyland.
It later transpired he was never in the running to be leader. Kim Jong Un’s aunt told The Washington Post last year that the current leader had been chosen as successor in the early 1990s when he was only eight years old.
In 2010, with Kim Jong Il’s health steadily worsening, Kim Jong Un was officially declared heir apparent.
Both before and after the announcement, the usually reclusive Kim Jong Nam said in interviews with Japanese media that he was opposed to hereditary succession, something that not even Mao Zedong had done in China. “But I presume there were internal reasons. We should abide by such reasons if there are any,” he told TV Asahi.
Kim Jong Nam was born 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.
He left North Korea to live with his grandmother in Moscow in 1979, according to North Korea Leadership Watch. He spent his childhood at international schools in Russia and Switzerland, before returning to North Korea in 1988, the site said.
But the embarrassing incident in Japan was a tipping point, and Kim Jong Nam appears to have never lived in North Korea again. He reportedly lived for a period in Macau, a Chinese region. But in recent years he seems to have had homes – and families – in Beijing and Singapore as well.
He had occasionally been sighted in sushi restaurants in Singapore and swanky hotel bars in Beijing, but had otherwise kept an extremely low profile.
Kim Jong Nam did, however, return to North Korea at least one time after his younger half-brother assumed the leadership – for their father’s funeral at the end of 2011.
Madden of North Korea Leadership Watch said that Kim Jong Nam could have been involved in financing for the regime, and could have run into problems as a result. But at the same time, Madden noted that Kim Jong Nam had publicly said he would do anything to help the new leader.
But their relationship likely took a turn for the much worse two years later, when the young North Korean leader had their uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed. Jang had been close to Kim Jong Nam and had reportedly backed him as successor.
Since then, analysts have suspected that China was keeping Kim Jong Nam in reserve as a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un, who has had strained relations with the Chinese leadership – and a way to keep North Korea stable but make it friendlier to Beijing.
Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership expert at CNA, a research company in Arlington, Va., said there were at least three possible reasons Kim Jong Un would want to get rid of his half-brother.
It could be that Kim Jong Un, who is only 33, was in the end stages of consolidating his leadership. “And when the consolidation phase comes to and end in totalitarian regimes, patronage systems can be targets for purges,” Gause said.
It could be a signal to China that Beijing doesn’t call the shots in North Korea. Or, it could be a sign of an internal power struggle in North Korea.
“I think all of these are very possible,” he said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield