N. Korean Leader Kim Jong Un's Half-Brother Is Dead. But Why?

Feb 15, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 12:58 pm

It's the stuff of spy novels. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's older half-brother Kim Jong Nam died mysteriously at the Kuala Lumpur airport, and both South Korean and Malaysian media report it was likely some sort of poison attack.

Several questions surround his suspicious death, but perhaps the biggest is: Who would want Kim Jong Nam dead?

The eldest Kim brother has led a quiet existence outside North Korea for decades, except for making headlines when he tried to enter Japan in 2001 on a fake passport. He later said he was trying to go to Tokyo Disneyland.

That Kim has remained out of the limelight is rather remarkable, given he's the son of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's notorious former dictator.

"You would live anonymously, too, if people were gunning for you," says Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who runs the site North Korean Leadership Watch.

"Kim Jong Nam has lived a very leisurely life, primarily in a condo that the Kim family owns in Macau," Madden says. Kim is widely known for his love of gambling and clubs. Madden also says Kim Jong Nam manages the family's personal fortune overseas, which includes homes in Singapore, Beijing and Paris.

Kim's fate took a turn Monday morning, while he was in transit at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Something caused Kim's sudden death.

Malaysian media are showing closed-circuit camera images in which two women cover a traveler's face with cloth. Police say emergency responders rushed the man, whose travel documents identified him as "Kim Chol," to the hospital, but he died en route.

"It probably is the strangest story that I have encountered about North Korean elites and the Kim family and Kim family politics," Madden says.

In South Korea Tuesday, Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee confirmed the identity of the dead traveler.

"The government is certain that the murdered individual is Kim Jong Nam. We have not confirmed the exact cause of death," Jeong said.

Kim could have died of natural causes, given his sedentary lifestyle and the family's reported issues with gout and high blood pressure. But if he was killed, theories run the gamut as to why.

Some believe Kim was punished for skimming from the family fortune he handled, or that he was the scapegoat in a power play by elites wanting to get back into leader Kim Jong Un's good graces. But they're all just guesses, says Madden.

"Nobody knows, and I don't think we will know the full story about the death of Kim Jong Nam for many years," he says.

As with so much about North Korea, even a man's demise is dressed in mystery.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this post from Seoul. Chan Kok Leong contributed to this post from Kuala Lumpur.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I mean, this is really the stuff of spy novels here. Malaysian media are reporting that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's older brother was killed at the Kuala Lumpur airport in a poison attack. Here's NPR's Elise Hu.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Fifteen years ago, this fuzzy footage caught Kim Jong Nam exiting a police van at Tokyo's Narita Airport. He was detained for traveling under a false passport. Outside this incident, Kim has lead a quiet existence, especially given he's the oldest son of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's late dictator.

MICHAEL MADDEN: You would live anonymously too if people were gunning for you.

HU: That's Michael Madden, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who runs the site North Korean Leadership Watch (ph).

MADDEN: Kim Jong Nam has lived a very leisurely life, primarily in a condo that the Kim family owns in Macau.

HU: Until yesterday. While in transit at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, something caused his sudden death. Malaysian media report closed circuit cameras caught two women covering a traveler's face with cloth. Police say emergency responders rushed the man to the hospital but he died en route. Malaysian media say it was Kim.

Early this morning, police arrested one woman at the airport in connection with the death, but they say she was alone.

MADDEN: It probably is the strangest story that I have encountered about North Korea elites and the Kim family and Kim family politics.

HU: In South Korea, a confirmation came from Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEONG JOON-HEE: (Through interpreter) The government is certain that the murdered individual is Kim Jong Nam. We have not confirmed the exact cause of death.

HU: He could have died of natural causes. But if he was killed, theories why run the gamut - that he was punished for skimming from the Kim family fortune or that he's the scapegoat in a power play by elites wanting to get back into leader Kim Jong Un's good graces. But they're all just guesses, says Madden.

MADDEN: Nobody knows - and I don't think we will know the full story about the death of Kim Jong Nam for many years.

HU: As with so much about North Korea, even a Kim's demise is dressed in mystery.

Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.