Whodunit: Brother of North Korea dictator murdered in Malaysian airport

“There’s a history of bloodshed within the family,” Reuters’ Julian Satterthwaite reports about North Korea’s Kim dynasty. That surely seems like an understatement after the apparent murder of Kim Jong-nam, the older ne’er-do-well half-brother of the current dictator Kim Jong-un. Officials in Malaysia describe an assassination, and believe two women working for the Kim regime carried it out and escaped:

The Associated Press has more on the murder itself:

South Korean media reported Tuesday that Kim Jong Nam, older brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was assassinated at a Kuala Lumpur airport by two women, though Malaysian officials would say only that a North Korean man died after suddenly becoming ill at the airport.

District police chief Abdul Aziz Ali said the man was waiting for a flight to Macau on Monday when he fell ill and died en route to a hospital.

Multiple South Korean media reports, citing unnamed sources, said Kim Jong Nam was killed at the airport by two women. TV Chosun, citing unidentified “multiple government sources,” said the women were believed to be North Korean agents and used poison needles to kill Kim. It said they fled in a taxi and were being sought by Malaysian police.

Selangor state police chief Abu Samah Mat said the man went to the airport clinic complaining that he had been sprayed by some liquid and was in pain, and died on the way to Putrajaya Hospital. He said the man held a North Korean passport but “we do not know his identity.”

Jong-nam makes a curious target for assassination. He has mainly spent his time in Macau and China, running up debts and getting kicked out of hotels, as AFP notes in its profile of him today. He got exiled from his father’s regime for trying to sneak into Japan on a forged passport in order to visit Tokyo Disneyland with two female companions. This isn’t the kind of man who seems likely to orchestrate a coup against his younger brother. However, his outspoken but indirect criticism about dynastic regimes earned him at least one assassination attempt in 2010 that went nowhere — a decidedly lower-tech plot involving a hit-and-run murder than the more obvious spycraft in today’s assassination.

Maybe this isn’t so much of a whodunit as it is a whoizzit. The Malaysian police statement lists the name on the passport of the deceased as “Kim Chol”:

As this Reuters chart shows, there actually is a Kim Jong-chol, and it’s another of Jong-un’s brothers. And, um … no one’s heard from him in a while, either:

Could the dead man be Kim Jong-chol rather than Kim Jong-nam? He’s also older than Jong-un, and perhaps a potential rival if factions develop in Pyongyang seeking to depose Jong-un. However, Jong-chol appears to be as much of a ne’er-do-well as Jong-nam, and left the dynastic regime less than impressed by his toughness:

With Kim Jong Nam out of the picture, you might assume that Kim Jong Chul, the middle son, would be the natural choice for a new heir. He was not. While it’s not exactly clear what led him to be passed over for his younger brother, Kenji Fujimoto, a pseudonym for Kim Jong Il’s personal sushi chef, later wrote in his memoir that the North Korean leader thought Kim Jong Chul was too effeminate.

“The older brother, Jong-Chul, had the warm heart of a girl,” Fujimoto wrote.

Exactly what that means is anyone’s guess. Perhaps an interest in British rock music and leather jackets was part of it, but it probably wasn’t all of it. According to “Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989,” a book by Hyung Gu Lynn, Kim Jong Chul wrote a poem when he was a child studying in Switzerland that said his ideal world would have no weapons or atom bombs and people would be free.

The BBC reports that Jong-chol’s whereabouts have not yet been established, so perhaps we should keep a close eye for a positive identification. If this was Kim Jong-nam who got assassinated — and that’s been the assumption so far — then it looks as though Jong-nam may have appropriated his half-brother’s identity for travel. That doesn’t make much sense, though; if Jong-nam wanted to avoid assassination, why travel under his brother’s identity and take the risk that Jong-un wouldn’t want both of them dead? Or maybe that’s already been accomplished, given that no one’s seen Jong-chol since a 2015 Eric Clapton concert in London?

Regardless of which brother got the assassin treatment, this serves to remind everyone about the nature of the Kim regime in Pyongyang. They will go anywhere and kill anyone to keep their grip on power, even family members who present absolutely no threat to them at all. It’s a gangster regime.