Unquestionably, one of the most interesting stories (outside of imminent nuclear threat) having to do with the DPRK was the assassination of Kim Jong Nam. The world was reminded that Supreme Leader has some (half-)siblings, China’s motives were put into question, and Malaysia defied its sometime-partner of convenience.
I thought I had written about Kim Jong Nam earlier, but I can’t find any evidence of having done so. Several years ago he attracted world attention by trying to sneak his family into Tokyo Disneyland with fake passports. Western media reflexively cast him as a higher-functioning idiot, figuring that any stab at any North Korean figure was part of the fight for justice.
The truth, of course, is that not everyone living in the DPRK, regardless of status, approves of Pyongyang. Americans grow up feeling this way about their own government but somehow decline to afford the same latitude toward denizens of other nations. To paraphrase an Iranian woman speaking to citizens of the US: most peoples of the world resemble each other, and most governments resemble each other, but few governments resemble their people. That’s important to remember!
In this case, Kim Jong Nam was not an idiot. The bastard son of Kim Jong Il and actress Song Hye Rim (never formally married), he was kind of an embarrassment to the dynasty and therefore was kept out of the public eye. Good ol’ Uncle Jang and Kyong Hui sponsored his admission to school in Geneva, when he was ten years old. In 1999, at age 28, he was DPRK’s ambassador to Cambodia; in 2000, to Iran. At age 30 he was head of a committee on computing, in collaboration with South Korea, and was probably responsible for state technology policy.
And once he was out of the DPRK, he was very careful to avoid areas and circumstances in which he could be nabbed and dragged back. He favored gambling in Hong Kong and Macau, and for a long time he seemed to enjoy the unofficial protection of the Chinese government. In 2010, an assassin by the name of Kim Yong Su made an attempt (kill or kidnap, unsure) on Jong Nam’s life on behalf of Pyongyang; another assassin was gunned down by his bodyguards in Macau the next year.
That’s why it was so significant that he could be assassinated in public, out in the open, in an airport in Kuala Lumpur. Where was his protection? What was China demonstrating by withdrawing their shield?
After some uncertainty as to who had actually been killed, the initial stories were that a woman had come up behind him and injected him with something, followed immediately by the old-school chloroform rag thrust on the face. Within days, this evolved into a malicious Vietnamese agent who’d lured a naive, young Indonesian woman into the ruse of a reality TV stunt (and then people reported the Indonesian knew exactly what she was getting into, as both women immediately washed up in the bathroom). Then other suspects were identified, and then the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia was recalled, one day before he himself was brought down on charges of conspiracy to murder. New information and anecdotes built up rapidly: Pyongyang demanded the immediate return of the body, and two break-ins were attempted on the morgue in Malaysia. The lethal chemical sprayed into Jong Nam’s face was VX nerve agent, which Pyongyang insisted was impossible, yet they’re known to employ this stuff.
Questions blistered rapidly. Were agents hunting Jong Nam this entire time, waiting for an opening? How did they know where he was going to be, that the Vietnamese woman was able to rehearse an execution with her partner several times in the capitol city airport?
Was Kim Jong Un implementing another family purge? What would this mean for Jong Chol, Jong Un’s older brother, passed over to rule the country (Kim Jong Il felt he was too effeminate) and languishing in a leadership position with the CC KWP? And was this story timed to distract people from the successful Pukguksong-2 ballistic missile test?
Like with many issues of North Korea, many guesses are as good as many others, and only time has any potential to reveal the truth.