North Korea has been in the news, almost always for the wrong reasons. Besides conducting nuclear tests, missile launches, merciless executions of suspects and rampant human rights violations, now the news come that Kim Jong-nam, North Korea’s current ruler Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother was assassinated in a Malaysian airport.
This does not surprise Korea watchers, given past history dating back to the Chosun dynasty when eliminating a family member to remain in power was not uncommon. But this time, the Kim Jong-nam’s killing has deeper significance in the context of regime survival, or that what is believed. The manner of his killing opens up many worms on the internal situation in North Korea.
First, who was Kim Jong-nam? He was the eldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and elder half-brother of current leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-nam was born in May 1971 (some reports say 10 June 1970) in Pyongyang to father Kim Jong-Il and mother Song Hye-rim. She was a popular film actress and the daughter of South Korean communist intellectual who opted for North Korea during the Korean War. She was already married to another man with a child and four or five years elder to Kim Jong-Il when she began a romantic relationship with him. As Korea is a conservative society, Kim Jong-Il kept this sordid relationship secret even with his father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-nam was already born when Kim Jong-Il was declared the candidate to succeed his father and therefore the need to keep the relationship a secret was felt. Most of his childhood was spent with his maternal grandmother and maternal aunt, Song Hye-rang, who was an author and widow with two kids of her own. Kim Jong-nam finally forged a relationship with his grandfather Kim Il-sung when his birth could no longer be kept secret. Song Hye-rim died in Moscow in 2002.
In 1979, Kim Jong-nam started studying overseas in Russia and Switzerland and returned to North Korea after a decade. His exposure to different political and economic systems led him to question the system back home, which in turn strained his relations with his father. He was even threatened of being sent to a political prison camp to work in a coal mine. This experience led Kim Jong-Il not to ever make him his successor. When the country faced drought in the 1990s, the junior Kim was involved in auditing the state’s finance and witnessed public executions of factory managers accused of stealing state money. This was a shocker and disillusioned him. But the junior Kim was flush with money himself, which made him lead a lavish lifestyle, visiting casinos and thereby earning the name of being a “party boy”.
Available information suggests that Kim Jong-Il was fond of his son when he was sent overseas for studying but his attitude towards him changed when he noticed progressive ideas in him which he had acquired during his stay overseas. By the late 1970s, Kim Jong-Il married Ko Yong-hui, an ethnic Korean repatriated from Japan and a dancer in the prestigious Mansudae Art Troupe. Finally the senior Kim set up a household with Ko and fathered three children with her, the middle one being the current leader Kim Jong-un. So, the void left by Kim Jong-nam when he left overseas for study was filled by Ko and the three children.
Unlike Kim Jong-Il’s other wives, Ko took interest in affairs of the state. She was ambitious and befriended close aides and generals. The first family politics started surfacing when Kim Jong-nam returned to North Korea in late 1980s and rumours started spreading on the question of succession, which child shall be positioned to succeed Kim Jong-Il, though discussion on the issue of hereditary succession was frowned upon. Soon, Ko was seen as a the country’s first lady, and seen as laying the groundwork for one of sons, Jong-un or his older brother, Jong-chol, to become hereditary successor.
When Kim Jong-nam was arrested at a Tokyo airport in May 2001 with a counterfeit passport, it not only embarrassed the Kim family but exposed that the North Korean elites sometimes travel using passports with assumed identities. Because of his overseas training and Tokyo experience, he was ruled out from contention to succeed his father. Ko was clever enough to play politics by using this Tokyo incident to promote one of her sons to succeed Kim Jong-Il. This provided enough fodder to analysts to discuss the alleged rivalry between Jim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-un, which were indeed exaggerated.
Suspect behind the killing
There are speculations that it was Kim Jong-un who got his half-brother killed. Whether this is true or not, the rumour is not going to die down given the happenings and acts of the leader back home. Answer to the question whether Kim Jong-un conspired to kill could be both Yes and No. Yes, because one can see that for regime survival Kim Jong-un can go to any extent and would not hesitate to execute or eliminate a potential or perceived threat to his survival. No, because Kim Jong-nam was not interested to be the leader and therefore no threat at all to the regime. All accounts suggest that Kim Jong-nam was not a threat or a credible rival to the current leadership.
In fact, he had no interest in the job. He had no idea about the nuance of governing a country and his outlook was quite different. Moreover, he was living under some protection from Chinese authorities and had made Macao his base. It was therefore not in Kim Jong-un’s geopolitical interest to eliminate his half-brother. There is a view, however, in some quarter in Pyongyang that Kim Jong-nam was admired by some elderly Korean elites and enjoyed their special affection. Any rumour of Kim Jong-nam posing a political challenge to his younger brother can be rubbished because the two persons who possibly could have propped up him were his aunt Kim Kyong-hui and uncle Chang Song-thaek. While Madame Kim effectively retired from political life, Chang was executed on Kim Jong-un’s orders in December 2013 and therefore no longer relevance in power circles.
How did he die? There are conflicting opinions. The Malaysian government is investigating the matter at the moment and already arrested three persons, two women and a man. Death out of a heart attack is also a possibility. First, the Malaysian police arrested a female carrying a Vietnamese passport suspected in connection the death of Kim Jong-nam. She was detailed at the terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and was identified on the travel document as Doan Thi Huong born on 31 May 1988. Kim died on 13 February 2017 when he was on his way to the Chinese territory of Macau, where he had been living reportedly under China’s protection.
As mentioned, Kim was living in exile for many years and kept a low profile. He never publicly expressed interest in challenging his half-brother for North Korea’s leadership, though he was critical of the regime. He was opposed to dynastic style of the political rule and that may have been perceived as threat.
Yet, given the brutality of Kim Jong-un regime, speculations that Kim Jong-un was behind the killing does not die down so easily. If confirmed, that would clearly depict the brutality and inhumanity of the present regime in Pyongyang. According to South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, there was a long-standing order from the North Korean leadership to eliminate this family member. It is believed that there was an attempt in 2012 to kill him as well but failed.
Kim Jong-nam had not gone through immigration for his flight to Macau when he was attacked with a chemical spray. According to South Korean media reports, Kim was jabbed with a poisonous needle or a cloth by two women, reportedly on the order of Kim Jong-un. There are rumours that given the recalcitrance of Kim Jong-un, China preferred an affable Kim Jong-nam to lead North Korea. If true, that in itself was a direct threat to Kim Jong-un and thus had to be eliminated at any cost, even if it meant fratricide.
Interestingly, the two half-brothers apparently never met and there was obviously no love between them. During the Chosun dynasty, eliminating a brother or an uncle in a royal household if seen as a threat or potential threat was not uncommon and if this logic is applied to Kim Jong-nam’s killing, it is believable that Kim Jong-un regime had a hand. After all, he had put to death his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek in 2013 whom he perceived too close to China and getting more powerful.
The timing of the assassination is equally important as Kim Jong-un defied international sanctions and fired off a new type of solid-fuel land-based ballistic missile just a week before the killing. That was a message Kim was sending not just to the US and Japan but to South Korea and China, besides inside his own regime. Kim Jong-nam favoured reform, a position that China shared and that was his undoing.
North Korea under the leadership of a third-generation Kim Jong-un is one of the poorest countries, though its nuclear program remains unstoppable. The question is, why did Kim Jong-un choose this time to eliminate his potential rival, his half-brother if at all that was the case? The developments in the neighbouring South Korea where popular protest brought down a sitting President could have unnerved him. That could have made him feel insecure, as he probably believes that loyalty based in fear is safe.
Since he was arrested in Tokyo’s Narita airport with a fake passport, Kim Jong-nam has been leading an unstable life and mostly lived overseas in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Singapore. He was even afraid to return to Pyongyang to attend his father’s funeral in 2011 for fear of his life. His life had become a subject of international interest. The regime in Pyongyang must have known that assassinating Kim Jong-nam would make international headlines but still could have felt the risk worth-taking because of less reported internal situation worsening day by day.
Eliminating a potential threat is not unusual for a dictator. In North Korea’s case, it is the brutal manner it is executed that makes hair-raising tales. Kim Jong-un had his own uncle and once the second most powerful man in the country, Jang Song-taek executed in public in 2013, and pictures of Jang being dragged out of a court room by security guards before his execution were splashed throughout in the media. Even former defence minister Hyon Yong-chol and Kim Yong-jin, a premier were executed. The human rights group North Korea Strategy Centre estimates over 1,000 officials have either been executed or tortured before execution.
What does this suggest for an outside observer? The incessant purges show that the regime is unstable. Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to England who defected has spoken candidly about the manner in which dissent is punished and the increasing disillusionment among the elite. If Kim Jong-nam’s assassination indicates anything, it is possible to believe that there is some sort of plan of a coup brewing inside the country which is why more purges could be expected in the coming days.
The developments in North Korea must be worrying to South Korea. An unstable North Korea, though welcome if it leads to collapse, is also a big headache for the South and for the region. It is difficult to predict what could be the next provocation as South Korea and the US prepare for massive joint military drills in March 2017. South Korea is also experiencing problems in domestic politics after President Park Geun-hye was impeached. Despite the real threat constantly coming from the North, the decision of the Park government to deploy Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence battery from the US is being opposed by the opposition Minjoo Party. Presidential hopeful of the opposition Minjoo Party Moon Jae-in not only argues for resumption of inter-Korea economic projects but has even suggested that he would visit the North first if elected to be the President. South Korea’s relation with Japan is not good either as history issues continue to cloud bilateral ties despite common threat from North Korea. These pose a big challenge to President Donald Trump too.
Did Kim Jong-nam possess any political ambition, which is why he was seen as a potential threat by his half-brother and therefore merited elimination? From what he had shared with journalists and people outside of the country, he was opposed to “dynastic succession” and openly criticised the manner the country is being governed.
This in itself was seen as a threat and thus merited elimination. After his father’s death in December 2011, he had become more vocal in his views. He had shared his views with Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist that Kim Jong-un’s ability to maintain “absolute power” would lead the country to collapse without reform. He also said that reform would lead to the collapse of the Kim dynasty and that his brother would be little more than a puppet figure, used by the ruling elite.
Kim Jong-nam was not ever in line of succession. According to his son Kim Han-sol, born in Pyongyang in 1995 and never met his grandfather, his father was not interested in politics. Despite this, he remained a target and his life had been in danger. According to a North Korean spy who revealed in 2012, an attempt was made in 2010 to run Kim over by a taxi, which did not succeed. The whereabouts of Kim Jong-chul, Kim Jong-Il’s middle son, apparently passed over for succession for being too effeminate, is not known. He was last spotted at an Eric Clapton concert in London in 2015.
North Korea’s History of assassinations
Since North Korea emerged as fractured part of the Korean peninsula following the Korean War, the country is involved in a series of assassinations or such attempts. The dictatorial government has never balked at eliminating dissent and making sure that alternate power centres do not form at home. Not only ‘side branches’ of the Kim family sent into exile or killed, occasionally one followed by the other, those seen as potential power centres such as Thaek or the defence minister or premier were executed.
No wonder all eyes point to the current Kim Jong-un regime as the main suspect. The two women and a man are believed to be North Korean agents for the sensational assassination of Kim Jong-nam. The bizarre manner of the killing bears all the hallmarks of a North Korean hit. Traditional purges, executions, mysterious car crashes in a country with almost no traffic are common ways to get rid of enemies or suspected enemies.
Some other assassinations or attempts associated with the Kim regime are (a) the failed 21 January 1968 incident when 31 North Korean commandos known as Unit 124 dispatched to Seoul to storm presidential Blue House and kill President Park Chung-hee; (b) 1983 Rangoon bombing when three North Korean agents hid a bomb in the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon on 9 October 1983, before then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan was due to lay a wreath there, killing 17 South Korean officials and two presidential aides but escaping the president for being late; (c) killing of Choi Duk-keun, a South Korean diplomat stationed in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok in October 1966 in a revenge attack; and (d) killing of a member of the extended Kim family, Yi Han-yong, a cousin of Kim Nong-nam, by North Korean assassins on the street in 1997.
Two more incidents were equally chilling. One incident was in 2009. Pyongyang is said to have ordered the killing of Hwang Jang-yop, who had been secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party until he defected in 1997. He had sought asylum at the South Korean embassy in Beijing, becoming the highest-level defector from North Korea. The agents were said to have been paid $40,000 to kill Hwang but failed in their attempts till finally he died of natural causes at the age of 87 in 2010. The other chilling experience was in 2011 when a defector to South Korea, alleged to have been a secret North Korean agent, was arrested in 2011 for trying to assassinate Park Sang-hak, another defector who had turned into an outspoken critic of the regime in Pyongyang. The agents, identified as An also failed in his attempt and was captured. Park is still around speaking against the regime in Pyongyang.
In the latest case of defection, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London became one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect in August 2016. According to him, Kim Jong-un would be prepared to attack the US with nuclear weapons, but that the regime will one day fall. Kim does not have the means to attack the US at the moment but he is developing the ability. The defector says that once there was an effective nuclear arsenal, Kim would be prepared to use it. It would not be surprising if news surface on some attempt on Thae’s life, presently living in Seoul under South Korea’s protection.
Like previous assassination case, investigations shall continue. In Kim Jong-nam’s case, the Malaysian authorities are probing the matter and it remains unclear if there shall be any definite proof suggesting to Pyongyang’s involvement.
<em*>Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. E-mail: [email protected] Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.