Kim Jong-nam and his half-brother Kim Jong-un (inset), who is North Korea’s leader.The apparent assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur Airport on Monday seems intended to remove an ongoing political embarrassment and potential leadership problem for the North Korean regime. According to South Korean media, Kim Jong-nam was travelling on a valid passport in the name of Kim Chol.
Early reports say Kim, 45, was attacked by two women suspected to be North Korean agents using a chemical spray in the airport’s shopping concourse. It was obviously quick-acting because Kim died on the way to hospital.
South Korea’s national news agency, Yonhap, reported that the North’s intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, carried out the assassination.
The bureau is North Korea’s premier intelligence organisation, responsible for covert external operations. It has been associated with multiple attacks, including the 1968 attempt on South Korean president Park Chung-hee, the 1983 attempted assassination of South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon that left 21 dead, the 1987 downing of Korean Air flight 858 killing 115 people, and the 2010 attempt on high-ranking North Korean defector Hwang Jang-yeop in South Korea.
Assuming the women were bureau agents, the conduct of the attack and evading capture would have been considered carefully beforehand. It’s likely the agents will now either lie low in Malaysia or try to get to neighbouring Thailand or Indonesia, which have less stringent entry controls than Singapore.
Kim’s death by assassination would be the highest-profile North Korean death since the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek in North Korea in December 2013. Jang was responsible for North Korea’s economic reforms under Kim Jong-il and had supported Kim Jong-nam as the expected successor to his father, Kim Jong-il. However, Kim Jong-nam greatly embarrassed the North Korean regime when he tried to visit the Tokyo Disney Resort in 2001 using a false passport and was detained by Japanese authorities.
After that, he was effectively out of the running for the leadership and spent most of his time abroad. In September 2010, Kim Jong-il named his younger son Kim Jong-un as his chosen successor and, after his death, Kim Jong-un became supreme leader in December 2011.
Kim Jong-un was thought initially to lack the ruthlessness of his Kim dynasty predecessors, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But he has since shown a ruthless streak in executing senior cadres seen to lack commitment to the Kim dynasty or to pose a potential threat to Kim Jong-un’s hold on power. His most unexpected act was the execution of his powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, for belittling Kim Jong-un behind his back and “factionalism”.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-nam’s actions abroad were also probably causing disquiet in Pyongyang. Kim had been living in Macau under Chinese protection. It seems China found it useful to keep him in the wings as a potential pro-China replacement for his half-brother. Kim Jong-nam travelled regularly to Beijing for talks with officials and was believed to have the ongoing support of factions of the North Korean Workers Party. He had also been publicly critical of the dynastic succession process in North Korea.
Because of Kim Jong-un’s belligerent foreign policies and China’s lack of control over North Korea, there has been increasing support in China for a hardline policy against North Korea. Since 2012, plans to oust Kim from power and replace him with his half-brother have surfaced at least twice, but of course they might have been deliberate leaks to keep Kim Jong-un in line.
Any decision to eliminate Kim would have come from the top. Kim was always watched closely by the Reconnaissance General Bureau and it had, according to an arrested North Korean agent, considered killing him via a hit-and-run “accident” in China. However, it would have been considered preferable to avoid problems with China by killing him elsewhere. His regular travels to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and France provided a better option.
For the record, Kim Jong-nam was the product of Kim Jong-il’s extramarital relationship with Sung Hae-Rim, a South Korean-born actress.
Clive Williams is honorary professor at the Australian National University’s Centre for Military and Security Law and an adjunct professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.