This post has been updated.
It’s been a month for Pyongyang watchers. On Feb. 12, North Korea announced a successful land-based test of an intermediate-range missile, which traveled farther than any prior launch, landing in the Sea of Japan. On Feb. 16, the country celebrated the 75th birthday of Kim Jong-il, father of current leader Kim Jong-un.
In between those two events, a more puzzling one took place: Kim Jong-nam, the chubby elder half-brother of Kim Jong-un thought to be uninvolved with North Korean politics, was murdered on Feb. 13 in a Malaysian airport. The details of and motives behind his death remain unclear. But here’s what we know so far.
Reports of Kim Jong-nam’s death first surfaced in local Malaysian media outlets on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 14. Malaysian newspaper Berta Harian stated that Kim was on his way to board a flight headed to Macau, his primary place of residence, when a woman covered his head in a cloth soaked in an unidentified liquid. South Korean media, however, reported that he was killed by injection with a “poisoned needle.” After completing an autopsy on the corpse, Malaysian authorities announced Kim had been exposed to VX nerve–one of the most toxic substances in the world, considered to be a “weapon of mass destruction” by the United Nations.
On Feb. 15, Malaysian police reported they had detained a woman on suspicion of involvement with Kim’s death. Travel documents state her identity as Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnamese national born in 1998. Surveillance footage captured at the airport shows her wearing a t-shirt bearing the letters “LOL.” Her femme-fatale-meets-K-pop appearance prompted a photograph of her to go viral, and inspired some opportunistic vendors to sell copycat versions of the shirt online.
On Feb. 16, Malaysian police confirmed they had detained a second woman, this one carrying a (possibly fake) passport stating her identity as Siti Aishah, an Indonesian national born in 1992. A third person, believed to be her boyfriend, was later apprehended, along with a North Korean national named Ri Jong Chol. According to Indonesian police, Siti Aishah believed that she was part of a “Candid Camera”-style prank TV show that involved spraying unsuspecting individuals with perfume.
Malaysian police are now seeking four North Korean men who left the country on the same day as Kim’s death.
On Feb 19. video surveillance footage purportedly showing Nam’s death surfaced on Japan’s Fuji TV. The blurry footage shows a woman—who vaguely resembles the suspect in the “LOL” photograph—entering a line of people, seizing a person by the head, and then darting away.
Government sources in the US and South Korea have told media they believe the murder was an assassination carried out on behalf of North Korea, which has yet to publicly confirm or deny any involvement in the incident. But analysts say Kim’s killing resembles assassinations and attempts Pyongyang has conducted over the course of decades.
The once-cozy ties between Malaysia and North Korean have quickly deteriorated. North Korean ambassador Kang Chol condemned Malaysia for carrying out an autopsy without handing over the body to North Korean authorities first, and accused Malaysia of “colluding with hostile forces.” On Feb. 20, Malaysian authorities withdrew their diplomatic envoy in Pyongyang and summoned Kang to meet with the Malaysian foreign ministry to explain his accusations.
On Feb. 22, North Korea released its first official public statement about Kim’s death—in which it blamed Malaysia and South Korea for the death, without referring to Kim’s name or relationship with his brother specifically. “What merits more serous attention is the fact that the unjust acts of the Malaysian side are timed to coincide with the anti-DPRK conspiratorial racket launched by the South Korean authorities,” state media outlet KCNA said.
China has also been thrown into the mix. On Feb. 18, the country announced it would suspend all coal imports from North Korea starting the following day. Experts say the decision reflects Beijing’s mounting frustration towards its erratic neighbor. A Feb. 23 piece in KCNA published a thinly-veiled attack on its neighbor of “dancing to the tune of the US.”
Why was he killed?
Some experts see Kim’s death as the latest ousting of a potential political rival of Kim Jong-un. Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the national intelligence committee in South Korea’s parliament, attributed it to Kim Jong-un’s “paranoia.”
Yet “paranoia” isn’t a satisfying explanation. Kim Jong-nam was different from the other men his estranged half-brother had killed or removed from power, primarily because he’d been distant from North Korean politics—and indeed the Korean peninsula itself—for over a decade. While he couldn’t be considered a defector or dissident, neither was he a supporter of the regime.
Kim Jong-nam was long considered the rightful heir to the regime run by his father, Kim Jong-il. After receiving his education abroad, he returned to Pyongyang in 1994 and immediately entered the government. Plans for his succession were thwarted, however, when he was arrested at an airport in Japan carrying a forged Dominican Republican passport, reportedly on his way to Tokyo Disneyland. Afterwards, he lived in Beijing, Southeast Asia, and Macau—the self-governing region that’s officially part of the People’s Republic of China. Most of his time was spent the latter city, where he spent his time gambling and living in comfort.
Regardless, whatever security he felt seems to have eroded after Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. Unnamed sources in Macau told the South China Morning Post that Kim had been sensing his half-brother sought to kill him. Intelligence officials say they suspect the elder Kim wrote to the younger one in 2012 pleading for his life, sensing an assassination was imminent.
It’s possible Kim’s death marks a deliberate attempt by Pyongyang to rattle Beijing. Kim Jong-nam appears to have enjoyed some degree of protection from Chinese authorities—enough to enjoy Macau’s luxuries, but evidently not enough to prevent an assassination overseas. Some have suggested that China hoped to prop up Kim Jong-nam as a replacement for his brother. Kim Jong-nam’s statements about North Korea suggest his political views were more moderate than those of his brother and father, which might have given Beijing a glimmer of hope that it could usher him into leadership, and ultimately reform the regime with minimal conflict.
It’s also possible that North Korea arranged Kim’s assassination as a punishment for a planned move to the South. Days before the murder, South Korean media ran a story stating that he had planned to defect to South Korea about five years ago, and had even corresponded with president Park Geun-hye before she became head of state. As the onetime presumed successor to Kim Jong-il, defecting to the South—which is technically still at war with the North—would have marked a major blow to Kim Jong-un and the Pyongyang regime.