The Assassination of Kim Jong-nam

Marcus Noland (PIIE) and Stephan Haggard (PIIE)



The Kim regime has a history of assassinating and murdering its opponents, whether they be South Korean leaders, North Korean officials who’ve fallen from grace, or even Chinese pastors. These assassinations extend to family members as well, most recently, the 2013 execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek. Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in Kuala Lumpur is the latest tally to the Kim regime assassination log.

For the purposes of this blog post, we stipulate that the killing was a political assassination, though it will take time to prove that definitely. Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was once groomed to be the next leader of the DPRK but fell from grace and subsequently spent the last several years living in Macau and China, where he was provided diplomatic protection. In the past Kim Jong-nam criticized hereditary succession (and hence the legitimacy of his little half-brother’s rule) and voiced his support for reform in the DPRK. Kim Jong-un never forgave him for these transgressions, a fact of which Kim Jong-nam appeared to be well aware; according to South Korean intelligence, Kim Jong-nam sent a letter to Kim Jong-un pleading for his life in 2012.

The bizarre assassination story involves two women assassins poisoning Kim Jong-nam in the budget lounge of the Kuala Lumpur airport. Kim Jong-nam immediately sought medical and police attention but was declared dead en route to the hospital. Thus far two women—one with a Vietnamese passport, the other with an Indonesia passport—have been detained, along with the boyfriend of the Indonesian passport holder. It remains possible that the assassins were in fact North Koreans carrying foreign passports, itself an interesting development. The investigation is ongoing and the autopsy report has not been released.

Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in Kuala Lumpur is the latest tally to the Kim regime assassination log.

In the absence of any evidence, it is easy to spin theories. If a standing order, timing is not really relevant: the issue was not “if” but “when.” On the other hand, the decision to pull the trigger could signal nervousness in Pyongyang. The last year has seen some unsettling defections, from a bevy of waitresses to diplomat Thae Yong-ho. Kim also recently purged Kim Won-hong, a critical figure in Kim Jong-un’s transition to power. If Kim Jong-nam were a possible candidate for regime figurehead—including as a component of a Chinese contingency plan—best to remove the possibility if challenges are afoot.

Or the hit could reflect something altogether more mundane, such as a struggle over money or connections to the Malaysian underground. The assassination is certainly going to open up closer scrutiny of how North Korea is using Southeast Asia as a lifeline to the world economy.

The most interesting questions center on how this event is viewed in China. The assassination of Jang Song-thaek was a serious affront given that he had shepherded China-DPRK relations. We do not have any evidence that Kim Jong-nam was an instrument of Chinese policy; he seemed to fit more closely the dissolute elite playboy model, showing up in expensive venues now and then. If the Chinese did feel that they were granting him protection, it would be an ironic turn given how they have been behaving toward their own nationals abroad.

The assassination was a warning to elite North Korean leadership to toe the line or end up like Kim Jong-nam. The debate since Kim Jong-un came into power and engaged in successive purge cycles is whether they signal that he has a full grasp on power or is lashing out in weakness. It's not clear that Kim Jong-un knows the answer himself.

Whatever his intentions, the last round of North Korea news is not doing the regime any good. The firing of a missile while Japanese Prime Minister Abe was visiting US President Donald Trump at his personal estate will push the US and Japan closer together. And the assassination just re-enforces the image of the regime provided by the Commission of Inquiry report: a cruel and ultimately capricious dictatorship that cannot be trusted on anything. 

Edit (2-20-17): Video footage of the attack has surfaced:

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