The Death of Kim Jong Nam: Internal Struggles within the Hermit Kingdom

The Death of Kim Jong Nam: Internal Struggles within the Hermit Kingdom

The untimely assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the reclusive, estranged older brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, sheds light on the state of distrust and paranoia among the ruling class of the isolated communist nation. Jong Nam, seen as a reformer and moderate compared to his father and younger brother was admired by many within the international community for the differences he had with his family. 

Kim Jong Nam was viewed as the heir apparent to North Korea's Leadership after his father Kim Jong II came to power, as he was the eldest son of the late dictator. However, in a high profile case in 2001, Jong Nam was detained in Japan for possessing a false passport in an attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland. This brought embarrassment to his father, which led to his falling out of favor to inherit the leadership. He was eventually exiled in 2003, and later went on to become a critic of his father's regime.

Following this incident, Kim Jong Un, Jong Nam's younger half brother, became the heir apparent. After his exile, he fled to the Chinese Special Administrative Region of Macau. In the years after his exile, it was revealed that he began to fall out of favor with his father following his education in Switzerland. “After I went back to North Korea following my education in Switzerland, I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and market-opening and was eventually viewed with suspicion," he recalled. "My father felt very lonely after sending me to study abroad. Then my half brothers Jong-chol and Jong-un and half sister Yeo-jong were born and his adoration was moved on to them. And when he felt that I'd turn into a capitalist after living abroad for years, he shortened the overseas education of my brothers and sister." Because of his reformist leanings, the Government of China viewed Jong Nam as a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un, who has tested Beijing's patience with consistent nuclear tests and threats towards their neighbors and the US. However, after the Disneyland incident, his fate was sealed. 

Jong Nam periodically travelled to Malaysia, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore from Macau. The incident itself took place at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. According to Malaysian authorities, as Jong Nam was waiting for his flight, two women approached him. While one held a handkerchief over his face, the other sprayed a toxin called VX that was absorbed into the handkerchief. The toxin subsequently entered his nervous system and he was quickly rushed to the hospital. Jong Nam, however, had a seizure shortly after as a result of the poisonous effects of the toxins and died as he was being evacuated from the airport. The two assailants, 28-year-old Vietnamese citizen, Đoàn Thị Hương, and 25 year old Indonesian citizen, Sihi Aishah, were arrested days after the killing.   

A number of suspects are at large and were spotted at the scene of the crime. South Korea's intelligence agency says that four of the seven suspects named by Malaysia work for North Korea's Ministry of State Security. One, Ri Jong Chul, was arrested a few days after the killing, while four others were flown out of Kuala Lumpur, returning to Pyongyang. As of now, Malaysia is conducting an autopsy on the body of Jong Nam. The only issue is, he was traveling with a passport under the name Kim Chul.  Malaysia, while having confirmed his true identity, says they will release the body once the post-mortem is completed. North Korea, however, is demanding the immediate return of his body. North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia has accused the Malaysian government of collaborating with the country’s enemies over the death of Jong Nam, even going to the extent of accusing them of being under the influence of the South Korean Government. As of now, the body still remains in Malaysia, but the pressure is ramping up on North Korea's behalf.

This incident shows Kim Jong Un's wrath towards those within his regime that he considers a threat to his power, and is the second time he has had a family member killed. In 2013, Kim had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, executed for “counter-revolutionary” activities. Kim also had Song-thaek's entire family killed as well, including children and the former Ambassadors to Cuba and Malaysia. These executions were meant to ensure that no traces of him were left. Jang was close with Kim's father and held the high position of Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea in addition to other administrative positions. He also helped the younger Kim consolidate power after his father's death, and was a very close advisor. 

Kim Jong Un clearly saw both his uncle and brother as loose ends and potential threats to his power and had them eliminated. Perhaps the fact that Jong Nam had been seen as a potential replacement for Jong Un by the Chinese was the driving factor for his assassination. Or it could be as simple as a longstanding resentment by Kim Jong Un for his older brother and his lust for power that drove him to commit this act of murder. Whatever the reason, Kim clearly has the capability and willingness to go to great lengths to ensure his grip on power within the Hermit Kingdom.

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