Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the current leader of North Korea, is dead. But while that much is clear, there remains significant uncertainty about just who was behind his murder and what caused him to be killed in broad daylight.
Having lived in self-imposed exile for many years and seldom visited the DPRK, it’s unclear whether his murder will have much impact on the current political situation in North Korea, despite his close blood relationship to Kim Jong Un.
However, if North Korea was behind the murder, it seems that one thing is for sure: Kim Jong Un ’s government found the presence of Kim Jong Nam to be a notable threat. Yet the probable explanation for that threat differ greatly on who you speak to, with suggestions he was preparing to become the most high profile person ever to defect to the South or ready to spearhead a government in exile among those theories now in circulation.
To find out just how significant his death is and what this now means for North Korea, NK News spoke to a range of notable North Korea leadership experts, intelligence specialists, and long-time observers of the country:
- Bruce Bennett – Senior Analyst, RAND Corporation
- Cheong Seong-chang – Senior Fellow at the Sejong Institute
- Choi Jong-kun – Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Yonsei University
- Cha Du-hyeogn – Former intelligence secretary to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak
- Kenneth Gause –North Korea leadership specialist, CNA Corporation
- Koo Hae-woo – Former Assistant Chief of the NIS for North Korea Strategy, Chief director of Korea Institute for Future Strategies
- Mike Madden – Founder, NK LeadershipWatch
- Tristan Webb – Senior Analyst, NK Pro
- Ra Jong-yil – Former first deputy chief of the National Intelligence Service, former ROK Ambassador to U.K. and Japan
1. What is the significance of this killing?
Kim Jong Nam was not a person who had in-depth information on the North Korean situation, but he was quite a symbolic person as he was a son of Kim Jong Il.
Therefore, the presence of Kim Jong Nam made the North Korean leadership uncomfortable and burdensome due to his symbolic aspect.
As a result, the North removed what was a thorn in [Kim Jong Un’s] side.
It is too early to decide on the significance of Kim Jong Nam’s death; we first need to know who killed Kim Jong Nam and why. The fact that people are already saying “it must have been Pyongyang” without evidence is a depressing reflection on the generally low analytical standards found in some quarters of the DPRK-watching community.
We need to be careful in distinguishing between facts, speculation, and bias. On the information currently available we cannot say who did it, and therefore cannot draw conclusions yet on the significance of the killing.
Kim Jong Un might have sensed a danger of possible “regime change” after seeing signs of U.S. policies towards the DPRK getting harsher, and a certain, unknown, fracture with China.
If that is the case, then Kim Jong Un may have considered his half-brother as a competitor, as they shared the same bloodline.
To remove the variable of Kim Jong Nam being “misused” by those parties, the North Korean leader made the decision.
For some people it will add to the idea Jong Un is on a “reign of terror” or feels unstable.
It might be warning not to defectors per se, but thousands of other North Korean expatriates.
On the other hand, we don’t know yet whether Jong Nam was murdered so it would be stupid and misleading to jump to conclusions as some are already doing.
We don’t know for sure. Like many things with North Korea, the North Korean leadership did not announce that they were taking action against Kim Jong Nam. But it appears likely that the North Korean regime was responsible for killing Kim Jong Nam.
If so, this was likely done to remove him from contention for the North Korean leadership at some future point in time, should Kim Jong-un be eliminated; he was also likely killed because of his criticisms of the North Korean dynastic succession and of Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un wishes to suppress criticism of his leadership, and this killing suggests to other North Koreans the cost that they might pay for criticizing him, seeking to discourage such criticism.
This assassination appears to signal that Kim Jong Un has moved into the final phase of his power consolidation process. He appears to be going after critical networks that helped him secure power, namely the Kim Kyong-Hui network. She was Kim Jong Nam’s protector inside the regime.
Seems Kim Jong Un now feels embolden to go after individuals in that network. Kim Won Hong was also a member of that network. There are other theories that go to motivation.
If Kim Jong Nam is confirmed to be assassinated, the assassination itself can be an indicator of Kim Jong Un’s solidified leadership.
The general interpretation is that the North may murder Kim to strengthen the leadership’s power, but I believe the North could kill Kim as the leadership is already strong.
2. What will be the impact in Pyongyang of this death?
If Kim Jong Nam was killed or had remained alive, the power structure of Pyongyang would have remained the same: unimpacted.
As far as we know, Kim Jong Un has already strengthened his power structure.
As the national leader, North Korea has no option but Kim Jong Un at this point. So, I don’t think his death would bring any changes to Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un might have sensed the danger of possible “regime change” amid seeing the signs of the U.S.’ DPRK policies getting harsher, and a certain, unknown, fracture with China. Considering recent reports in South Korea about the dismissal of Kim Won Hong and the changes the State Security Department (SSD) had gone through, I think that the North Korean government may have possibly discovered some form of an attempt of a coup d’etat.
Kim, as the minister of the department responsible for detecting such signs, could have been punished for failing to do so earlier. If that coup had succeeded, then the “alternative leader” to Kim Jong Un would be Kim Jong Nam, who shares the Baekdu Bloodline. Keep an eye on this for the next few weeks, and look for any North Korean elite just “disappearing” or their position changing.
If so, then it is possible that Kim Jong Un had detected signs of a coup, and taken appropriate actions.
Hard to say what the impact will be.
If it can be traced back to Pyongyang than they might have some uncomfortable conversations with the Chinese (with whom they have been engaging and more interactions in the last few months) and with the Malaysians–both of whom are allies to the DPRK.
The impact in Pyongyang of his death will depend on whether the DPRK ordered his death or not. The DPRK has reportedly asked for the body to be repatriated because Kim Jong Nam remained a DPRK citizen.
How the DPRK reacts to the death will be significant: will reports be carried by State media and how? Will a memorial be conducted?
These will be important clues for us in assessing the potential impact. But for now it is too soon to tell.
North Korea demonstrates that the country continues to depend on terrorism as a result of this incident. Therefore, it’s likely that the North would face the more serious isolation in the future. Despite the fact the North eliminated Kim Jong Nam, a thorn in their flesh, there is a strong possibility that the U.S. Congress will now designate the North as a terrorism-sponsoring country. The incident can cause considerable damage to Pyongyang’s image. I think the alleged assassination does more harm than good for the North.
But it’s hard to consider Kim Jong Nam as pro-China person. Kim Jong Nam was in contact with China staying in Beijing, Singapore and Malaysia, but China felt the necessity to protect him as he was in constant danger of being killed as the son of Kim Jong Il. However, it’s hard to say that China sees Kim Jong Nam as an alternative for Kim Jong Un regime.
There will probably not be much impact in Pyongyang: Kim Jong Nam did not live in Pyongyang and did not appear to be a major figure there. I believe that the real impact will be in Beijing. If China was really protecting Kim Jong Nam as some have argued, China failed, and that is a pretty big deal.
This was done within days of North Korea launching a missile which in many ways is at least as serious a threat to China as it is to South Korea or Japan.
The fact that China failed to prevent North Korea from fielding such a missile means that China has suffered two major failures within a few days.
None at all. Kim Jong Nam has no relation to the current structure of the North Korean government and the ruling system.
I think there will be no impact on Pyongyang as Kim Jong Nam had been excluded from North Korea. And I guess people connected to Kim were already purged as Kim was a considerably anti-regime person.
3. What is the most likely explanation of the murder, in your opinion?
I think it’s most likely related to Kim Jong Nam’s attempt to defect to another country. If at this point he had defected to a foreign nation, it would have been a such a disgrace to the Pyongyang government. Also, once he defects, Kim Jong Nam could be “misused”, with him forming a government in exile. Kim was not just an ordinary elite, but one the top parts of North Korea’s ruling family structure.
His defection would have been too symbolic for Kim Jong Un to condone. Which is what likely led him to take the extreme measure of “removing” Kim Jong Nam.
If Kim Jong Nam was killed, then, his death would certainly not be a “loss” to Kim Jong Un. But Kim Jong Nam was not the competitor to Kim Jong Un at all, as he was excluded from the North Korean power structure since his father, Kim Jong Il’s era. He was not a threat to Kim Jong Un, and the North had no reason to assassinate Kim Jong Nam.
As such, the only plausible explanation, at this point, would be if Kim Jong Nam was thinking of defecting to a foreign country: a country that is not neutral to the Pyongyang government, but hostile to it. Then, the North would have to get rid of Kim Jong Nam as his defection may have brought a considerable degree of damage and confusion to the government. Even for Kim Jong Un, assassinating someone outside of North Korea would not be an easy matter at all. Remember how the Rangoon Bombing backfired to the North Korean government in the past? Killing someone on foreign soil is not easy, and considering many hypotheses, that would be the only reason I can come up with. Pyongyang killed Kim Jong Nam as they learned that he was trying to defect to a hostile nation.
Some have speculated that Kim Jong Un ordered the killing either as punishment for Kim Jong Nam’s disloyal remarks on the country, or to eliminate the risk of Kim Jong Nam speaking out against the country in future.
But other explanations are possible. For example, several countries (not only the DPRK) have regrettably shown a willingness to assassinate individuals (a flagrant violation of international law) and it is conceivable that a country hostile to the DPRK chose to assassinate Kim Jong Nam as a member of the DPRK dynastic family in order to inspire fear within the DPRK leadership of further attacks.
It is also conceivable that no government organs of any country were involved, and that the killing was purely related to the personal affairs of Kim Jong Nam. Until the autopsy is completed and the DPRK’s reaction more fully revealed, I would caution against jumping to any explanations of the murder at this stage.
First, we will have to clarify if the deceased was Kim Jong Nam. If so, then we can start with excluding the option of him being involved in a “power struggle” as he is not related to the current North Korean structure. Kim Jong Nam is not the kind of person who could have threatened Kim Jong Un’s system.
This is different from Jang Song Thaek’s case, as Jang had his organization inside North Korea, had a concrete connection with China and made pro-Chinese movements, thus becoming a target of Kim Jong Un’s purge. However, Kim Jong Nam did not have such background and capabilities.
If it was indeed Kim Jong Nam who was killed, he, as one of Kim Jong Il’s sons, would have secret knowledge about North Korea’s top families. While he may not know that much, in the past he had made contacts with the western media. So, Kim Jong Un might have worried about the possibility of secrets being leaked through Kim Jong Nam, leading to his decision to “block” such possibility.
Kim Jong Un has been removing even apparently loyal senior leaders of his regime, probably because he is afraid of them. Some refer to this as his consolidation of the regime, but the driving factor in his brutal purges is almost certainly his fear those he purges.
If he indeed ordered the killing of his older half-brother, he was likely afraid of his half-brother. His fear may have included concern that his elites would believe the criticisms that his brother had raised and could continue to raise, in particular about the legitimacy of dynastic succession.
A number of elite North Korean refugees have raised this issue with me, saying that Kim Il Sung adopted socialism and juche, both of which dictated that the most capable individual should become the leader of North Korea when the former leader passes away. Kim Jong Un clearly was not the most capable individual. Kim Jong Un may be hearing more complaints to this effect, and decided to prevent his half-brother from raising this subject again. Of course, we really do not know.
We don’t know whether he was murdered or if Jong Nam, who had blood pressure problems and was prediabetic, simply had a heart attack on a flight. We should looking more closely at some other circumstances around his demise.
First, it occurred about ten days after ROK floated their trial balloon that Gen. Kim Wo’n-hong was removed as head of State Security.
Secondly, it occurred in Malaysia – the same country where Jang Song Thaek’s nephew served as ambassador until being a recalled a few years back, where Malaysian nationals can seek visa-free entry into the DPRK for short stays and where the regime does a fair amount of financial business.
Jong Nam was linked to some of the regime’s money management so these are things we might look at, if he has been murdered.
Kim Jong Nam seriously considered asylum in the 2000s.
And he was reported to have threatened the North to get money to maintain his extravagant life, saying he would defect if the North didn’t give money.
Therefore, I think there are possibilities that Kim Jong Nam attempted to defect again or threatened to defect to get money out of the North. His behavior could have angered the North’s leadership, and then the North killed him.
One theory is that something sparked the assassination. This could be tied to China. It has long been suspected that China would reach out to Kim Jong Nam if it ever had to conduct regime change inside North Korea. Kim Jong Nam would become their puppet in a reconstituted NK leadership. According to this theory, Kim Jong Un may have become suspicious of Beijing plotting.
The second theory is this is tied to a power struggle inside the regime, most likely within the security apparatus. Kim Jong Nam may have been the victim of an attempt by the SSD or RGB to show loyalty.
People tend to jump to the conclusion that this was a political assassination, but this is just one of many plausible scenarios.
Considering Kim Jong Nam was short of money, he could have been killed by debt collectors. But if Kim was assassinated for a political reason, the North may have killed him based on a long-term plan as the country had monitored him through surveillance and ordered to have him killed considering the situation.
If it’s true, it would be very meaningful.
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2828 words of this article.