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The Murder of Kim Jong-nam

By Mark Tokola

According to news reports, Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, was murdered in Malaysia on February 13.  He reportedly died while being transported from the Kuala Lumpur airport to a hospital, apparently as the result of poisoning, which seems to be the preferred means for modern dictators to dispose of threats (see what has happened to Putin’s critics).  Details will emerge later, but it would be surprising if Kim Jong-nam was not killed on the orders of his brother, Kim Jong-un, given that North Korean agents have reportedly tried to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in the past.  In looking for a motive for the murder, there is a Latin phrase for it, “Qui bono?” (“Who benefits?”).  There are very few that would directly benefit from Kim Jong-nam’s death other than his half-brother in Pyongyang.

What can we say about the murder of Kim Jong-nam?  First, it seems probable that the motivation for the murder was a continuing sense of paranoia on the part of Kim Jong-un, which may be a well-placed paranoia.  Whether or not Kim Jong-nam was actively plotting against Kim Jong-un (and there is scant evidence of that), he provided an alternative for North Koreans who would want to depose Kim Jong-un.  Kim Jong-nam has been fairly quiet in his exile, but was quoted in the Japanese press in 2010 as saying he opposed dynastic succession in North Korea.  Since taking power in 2012, Kim Jong-un has been eliminating those he has perceived as threats: first his uncle, Jang Sung-taek in 2013, and now his brother, Kim Jong-nam in 2017.  Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Second, the murder of Kim Jong-nam may be interpreted as another North Korean affront to China.  Kim Jong-nam has been living mostly in Macau, certainly under Chinese protection, and was quoted in 2012 as saying that North Korea needed “Chinese-style economic reform.”  Some commentators have theorized that the government of China was keeping Kim Jong-nam in reserve with the option of helping him assume power if Kim Jong-un fell in the future.  Jang Sung-taek was too close to China for Kim Jong-un’s taste; the same may have been true of Kim Jong-nam.

People will remember Kim Jong-nam as the Kim brother who tried to visit the Tokyo Disneyland on a false passport.  He now is likely to also be remembered as another victim of Kim Jong-un’s ruthlessness.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Tom Frohnhofer’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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