The Leaderboard: Kim Jong-nam

Who is he?

Kim Jong-nam was the son of Kim Jong Il and Song Hye Rim. He was the half-brother of Kim Jong-un. Kim was initially homeschooled in North Korea before attending international schools in Moscow and Geneva. In the 1990’s, Kim was a cadre in the Ministry of People’s Security, and later worked at the Ministry of Public Security where he was reportedly being groomed to succeed Kim Jong Il. In 1998, he was appointed to the DPRK Computer Committee where he worked on information technology initiatives.

Kim Jong-nam was thought to have fallen out of favor as his father’s potential successor due to his wayward (by North Korean standards) lifestyle, epitomized by a 2001 incident where he and his family were caught trying to enter Japan using fake passports in order to visit Tokyo Disney Resort. In recent years, he had resided in Beijing, Macau, and Singapore.

Kim Jong-nam in 2001. Source: Wikimedia, used under fair use guidelines.

Why is he in the news?

On February 13, Kim Jong-nam was waiting in the departures area at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a flight to Macau when two women smeared VX nerve agent over his face. He died within a half hour. The women, one Indonesian and one Vietnamese, now claim they were paid to take part in what they thought was a TV prank. South Korean lawmakers briefed by the country’s intelligence service say the women were recruited by North Koreans to carry out the attack, while North Korea denies any involvement. As a result of the incident and subsequent investigation, Malaysia’s government declared North Korea’s ambassador persona non grata and expelled him from Malaysia.

What is the significance?

Kim Jong-nam had been mildly critical of Kim Jong-un on occasion. In 2010 he told Asahi TV: “Personally, I’m against the third-generation succession. But I think there were internal factors behind the decision, and if this is the case, then we should follow that.” A 2012 book by a Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi quoted him as saying, “I have my doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern.” Kim Jong-nam also reportedly supported North Korean reforms that could have been seen as a challenge to the current regime.  While in North Korea, Kim Jong-nam was known to maintain close relations with his uncle Jang Song-thaek who was executed at the end of 2013 to consolidate Kim Jong-un’s power.

The bulk of purges typically happen during leadership transitions, but if confirmed, the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-nam could be part of a pattern of recent purges occurring five years into Kim Jong-un’s rule. South Korean intelligence reported that Minister of State Security Kim Won-hong was removed from office in January, and there are reports that five officials in his department were also executed recently. These purges and Kim Jong-nam’s assassination could signal that the North Korean leader still feels insecure and that the process of consolidating his rule in the country is not yet complete.

This CogitAsia Leaderboard was prepared by research intern William Tedrick of the Korea Chair at CSIS. To learn more visit CSIS’s Beyond Parallel: Bringing Transparency and Understanding to Korean Unification website.

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