Kim Jong Nam, older half-brother of North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, died at Kuala Lumpur International Airport while preparing to fly to Macau. He reportedly was injected or sprayed with poison by two unidentified women, presumed to be North Korean agents. If true, it seems Kim Jong Un is tying up loose ends, eliminating a family heir who might have been used to legitimize a successor regime.
North Korea always has looked a bit like the Ottoman Empire with the plethora of “royal” children and other close relatives competing for power. Until Kim Jong Un, however, family members might lose authority and disappear from public view, but they were not murdered — a practice embraced by Ottoman sultans.
Kim Il Sung was selected to be the Soviet Union’s man in Moscow’s occupation zone in the aftermath of World War II. For a time Kim’s brother looked like the heir apparent. But he was superseded by Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong Il.
However, the younger Kim’s rise was not certain; after his mother died Kim Il Sung had another family. Kim Jong Il reportedly bonded with his sister, Kim Gyong Hui, over their fear of being discarded by their father. On taking power Kim Jong Il kept half-brother Kim Pyong Il in effective exile, far from the power centers at home, as an ambassador to various Eastern European nations.
Kim Jong Il also had more than one wife (or consort, since it is not known which, if any, relationships were formalized). His oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, once thought to be heir apparent, apparently fell from favor in 2001 after attempting to enter Japan on a forged passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland (really!). The latter ended up in gilded exile, living mostly in Macau.
The eldest of Kim Jong Il’s other two (known) sons, Kim Jong Chol, reportedly — of course, like much else in North Korea, verification is impossible — was thought by his father to be effeminate. So the mantle of leadership fell upon Kim Jong Un, apparently just 29 when he succeeded his father in December 2011.
Kim Jong Un so far has swept aside all family competitors. He relies on his sister, rather like his father relied on his sister. Kim Jong Un’s stepmother disappeared from view shortly after he took over.
Kim Jong Un recently moved his step-uncle from Poland, where he was about to become dean of the diplomatic delegation, to the Czech Republic. Observers surmised that the move was intended to sever the diplomat’s accumulated international connections.
Most dramatically, in December 2013 Kim had his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Taek, Kim Gyong Hui’s husband, executed. Her fate was unclear, though she clearly disappeared as a power factor.
Jang and Kim Gyong Hui reportedly married against Kim Il Sung’s wishes. But once incorporated into the Kim clan, Jang gained influence, only to disappear at times under both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, apparently purged for some perceived offense. But he later reappeared.
Nevertheless, Kim Jong Il tagged his sister and brother-in-law as mentors of some sort for Kim Jong Un, but that arrangement lasted barely two years. No one knows exactly what happened, but Kim Jong Un broke with family precedent and very publicly had Jang killed. Jang’s execution dramatically demonstrated that no one was safe.
Now comes Kim Jong Nam’s apparent murder. He was critical of the regime and supposedly had been warned by Jang to keep quiet. Reports circulated of assassination attempts while he lived in Macau. Now apparently a potential rival of Kim Jong Un, seemingly quite distant, has been eliminated.
What does the killing suggest about Kim’s hold on power? Executions of top officials appear to have slowed while elite defections are on the rise. North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London Thae Yong Ho, who defected last August, recently claimed that dissatisfaction with the Kim dynasty is widespread, which is plausible but impossible to verify.
Perhaps more important is what the event suggests about Kim’s mindset. He must either have been greatly offended by his half-brother’s criticisms, or worried that Kim Jong Nam could have spurred some form of opposition to the present regime. Yet Kim Jong Nam would only appear to have been dangerous had the regime suffered from significant weaknesses at home.
Despite his relative youth, Kim Jong Un has demonstrated a ruthless determination to acquire and hold power. The impact of the killing of Kim Jong Nam on the ongoing game of Korean chess remains to be seen. But Kim Jong Un will present Japan and the United States with a tough foreign policy challenge.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.