Kim murder mystery: Who was the American?

Almost exactly one year ago, assassins killed the older brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Malaysia’s international airport, using VX nerve agent. The choice of weapon did everything but advertise Pyongyang’s determination to remove Kim Jong-nam permanently as a potential rival to his brother, but few had taken the elder Kim seriously in that regard. He had led a dissolute and isolated life in China after falling out with his family, with Beijing protecting him — at least until he traveled to Malaysia.

Or did someone take him more seriously than previously thought? According to the trial taking place for two of the assassins, Kim had $138,000 in cash in his backpack when the two women put the poison on his face. Investigators discovered that he had met with a mystery man four days earlier — an American who can no longer be found:

The estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader met with a Korean American man on a Malaysian resort island four days before he was killed, a police witness told a murder trial on Monday.

Indonesia’s Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnam’s Doan Thi Huong, 29, are accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur last Feb. 13. They pleaded not guilty to murder charges when their trial began Oct. 2. The two are the only suspects in custody, though prosecutors have said four North Koreans who fled the country were also involved.

Chief police investigating officer Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz told the court Monday that Kim flew from Macau to Kuala Lumpur last Feb. 6 and went to the northern island of Langkawi two days later. He said Kim met with the Korean American at a Langkawi hotel the next day, but he didn’t know the man’s identity and it wasn’t related to the $138,000 in cash found in Kim’s backpack when he was murdered.

Wah Azirul was responding to questions from Gooi Soon Seng, Aisyah’s lawyer, who asked him to confirm a report by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that Kim had met in Langkawi with a U.S. intelligence agent who was based in Bangkok.

Why would an American intelligence agent meet with Jong-nam? For one, he might have lots of background on the players in Pyongyang. It’s tough to get information on leadership in such a closed-off and paranoid society, and KJ-n would be an invaluable resource. He probably had a lot to say about his younger brother, at the very least.

According to investigators, Kim might have also brought a lot of intel data with him on his laptop. That had the defense attorney interested, too:

The report said Kim was believed to have passed a large amount of data to the agent, citing a Malaysian forensics analysis of a laptop found in Kim’s backpack after his death.

Wan Azirul confirmed the laptop was sent to a forensics laboratory in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, which found the computer had last been used on Feb. 9.

The forensics report, provided to reporters at the hearing, also showed some data had been accessed from a USB pendrive inserted into the laptop on the same day.

The Kim regime wouldn’t have liked that one bit and might have set up the assassination on that basis alone. On the other hand, it might have angered Chinese intelligence too, in which case the connections between the two women and the North Korean diplomatic personnel that fled immediately afterward might be moot. Or maybe the defense wants to argue that the US had KJ-n bumped off, although why that wouldn’t have happened four days earlier in much less public circumstances would be tough to explain. The rumored involvement of the American intelligence agent opens up other possibilities … or at least potential distractions to the fact that prosecutors have the two women on surveillance video conducting the hit, and then rushing to clean their hands.

All of this seems like it’s getting away from their main defense, which is that they got duped into the assassination by others. The women have claimed since the beginning that they thought they were working for a film production company that was making a Jackass-like show based on practical jokes. Not only is an American intel agent a red herring, harping on it by the defense might make it seem as though the women are raising questions about who put them up to the murder rather than whether they knew it was a hit at all.

Here’s a more interesting question: if KJ-n did travel to Malaysia to meet with an American agent, was that the catalyst for the assassination? If so, how did Pyongyang’s assassins find out about it? Did his Chinese handlers get word that the older Kim had begun working with the US and alert Pyongyang? Did it leak out through the US intel community instead, as has happened in the past? Or did the North Koreans just get lucky and spot him coming into the country? It seems odd that they would have VX nerve agent ready and in place just a few days after the alleged meeting, but perhaps they have it on standby for family hits. After all, one can’t lug the usual anti-aircraft artillery through Kuala Lumpur’s airport, can one?

Jazz Shaw Aug 17, 2022 11:01 AM ET