Kim Jong Nam was waiting in the departure area of the Kuala Lumpur airport on Monday morning when two women approached him from behind. One of the women covered his face with a cloth, according to Malaysian police. He complained to airport staff that he felt dizzy, then died en route to a hospital.
The 46-year-old Kim was once considered a potential successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, and South Korean officials quickly accused Pyongyang of ordering his assassination. Yet details about the killing’s circumstances and motivations remain hazy.
Security video from the airport, carried widely by Malaysian news websites, showed a woman believed to be the suspect waiting for a taxi at the airport. She wore pink tights and a white sweater, the letters “LOL” emblazoned across its front.
“Suspect was positively identified from the CCTV footage at the airport and was alone at the time of arrest,” said a statement by Tan Sri Noor Rashid Ibrahim, Malaysia’s deputy inspector general of police.
Another Malaysian police official, Fadzil Ahmat, told the Malaysian media outlet Bernama that a woman had “covered (Kim’s) face with a cloth laced with a liquid,” and that Kim’s eyes “suffered burns as a result of the liquid.”
Earlier reports had said the woman used a poison needle, but that is apparently no longer believed to be true.
South Korean intelligence officials were quick to point a finger at Pyongyang, which has a long history of using assassination to rid itself of those deemed to threaten the regime.
The assassination was a “standing order” dating back to 2012, Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s parliament, told reporters on Wednesday.
“We should take this as an action that reflects Jong Un’s paranoia,” Lee added, according to Bloomberg. “Normal citizens in the North aren’t aware of Jong Nam’s existence, and it is only elite there who knows about him. The elite should have been shocked.”
Kim Jong Nam was traveling alone on Monday, preparing to return to the Chinese region Macau, where he had been living incognito for more than a decade. He was carrying a passport bearing the name Kim Chol.
He is believed to have been the eldest of Kim Jong Il’s children. His mother was the elder Kim’s mistress, actress Song Hye Rim.
Kim Jong Nam was caught attempting to enter Japan on falsified documents in 2001. He told Japanese authorities that he was trying to take his 4-year-old son to Tokyo Disneyland.
Kim, whose substantial paunch and perennial stubble lent him an air of cavalier dishevelment, occasionally spoke out against his family’s rule — and spoke favorably of openness and globalism — in interviews with Japanese media.
His son, Kim Han Sol, is now 21, and his whereabouts and safety are unclear. Kim Han Sol has also expressed hope for reform in Pyongyang.
“I have always dreamed one day I will go back and make things better, make it easier for all the people there,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Finnish broadcaster YLE.
Analysts were divided over the killing’s significance for the North Korean regime.
“One of the reasons I’m scratching my head now is that the (South Korean) intelligence director, he didn’t give any explanation of the ‘why now’ question,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “This is kind of out of the blue, for people watching North Korea. I don’t know anyone out there who was saying, ‘Oh, Kim Jong Nam’s days are numbered.’ There’s no obvious explanation for the timing.”
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at Troy University, said that if Kim Jong Un perceived his half brother as a political threat, he may very well have ordered an assassination. In 2013, he oversaw the execution of his uncle and regent, Jang Song Taek.
“For autocracies and dictators, that’s a prudent move, to stay in power — to eliminate any possible sources of challengers,” he said. “To be a prudent dictator, you have to be willing to use deadly force.”
He added that Pyongyang’s role in Kim Jong Nam’s killing remains uncertain.
“Does someone else have a motive to kill him?” he said. “Everyone points at Kim Jong Un. But they really need to look at other possibilities, if he had been involved in illicit activities — there could be organized crime figures who have a motive to kill him as well.”
In China — North Korea’s most important ally, economic lifeline and primary source of humanitarian aid — authorities appeared keen to deflect blame for the killing from Pyongyang. A commentary in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily questioned, without evidence, whether South Korea may have been behind the killing.
“Who will benefit most from the death of King Jong Nam? The conservatives in South Korea,” it said. “If King Jong Nam dies, everyone will blame North Korea, from which South Korea stands to benefit. It will help South Korea to escape its current adversity by showing the world how cruel and inhumane North Korea is.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said that China “is closely following the death of Kim Jong Nam.” He gave no further details.
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