The Cable

Kim Jong Un’s Half-Brother Was Mysteriously Assassinated. Here’s What We Know.

Another twist in the saga of the hermit kingdom’s ruling family.


What would the world be without another absolutely bizarre story coming from North Korea? It’s hard to top a government ban on sarcasm, or a  mandatory haircut styles. But the latest story may take the cake.

Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was killed in Malaysia Monday morning after reportedly being attacked by two women believed to be North Korean agents. Here’s what we know:

The details of the attack: Kim Jong Nam was at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport getting ready to fly to Macau, China, when he reportedly said someone grabbed or held his face from behind and attacked him, a Malaysian police official told Reuters. He went to an airport kiosk complaining of feeling dizzy and ill after the attack and was sent to the airport clinic. When his condition didn’t improve, he was taken in an ambulance to a hospital. He died en route.

It’s yet unclear exactly how he died. South Korean television network Chosun-TV said two women attacked Kim Jong Nam with a poison needle. Other outlets, quoting Malaysian government sources, say the women sprayed poison in his face. For now, Malaysian police classified it as a case of “sudden death” and are awaiting autopsy results to decide further action, a Malaysian police official told the Telegraph.

Who is Kim Jong Nam? Kim Jong Nam was once considered the favored successor to his father, Kim Jong Il. He was described as a portly and easygoing young playboy who had a reformist mindset when it came to ruling North Korea. His mother, actress Sung Hye Rim, was one of four reported wives (or consorts) Kim Jong Il had during his lifetime.

Kim Jong Nam reportedly had a falling out with his father in 2001 when he was caught using a forged Dominican Republic passport trying to enter Tokyo Disneyland. That’s when Kim Jong Il began grooming another one of his four known sons, Kim Jong Un, to take the throne.

After the incident, Kim Jong Nam reportedly fled North Korea as early as 2003, living quietly in Macau, China and traveling often to Singapore and Malaysia. But when his younger half-brother took control of North Korea upon their father’s death in 2011, Kim Jong Nam went into hiding.

Why would Kim Jong Un want to assassinate his half-brother? The exact details are, again, murky. But it’s widely believed Kim Jong Un saw his older half-brother as a threat to the regime. And the Kim family has a habit of going medieval on family matters who fall out of favor.

Kim Jong Un executed his uncle in 2013. And Kim Jong Nam’s cousin, Lee Han Young, was assassinated by North Korean agents in 1997 after defecting to South Korea via Switzerland in 1982.

Kim Jong Nam may have invited his half-brother’s ire by criticizing him publicly. In 2011, Japanese media quoted him as saying he opposed “dynastic succession.” He was interviewed at length for a book on Kim Jong Il released in 2012 in which he dished dirt on his family, said Kim Jong Un lacked leadership abilities, and spoke out for economic reforms in North Korea.

Kim Jong Nam survived another suspected assassination attempt in 2011 in Macau. In 2012, a jailed North Korean spy in South Korea admitted to trying to organize a hit-and-run “accident” against the dictator’s half-brother.

What about the suspects? The two suspected North Korean operatives who reportedly killed Kim Jong Nam escaped the airport in a taxi. Malaysian police report they are still at large.

Photo credit: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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