Saturday, February 18, 2017

Kim Jong-nam Assassinated

Dear Korean,

I guess you've been following the news of Kim Jong-nam's assassination and I wanted to know your thoughts about it. Do you think the assassination was really plotted by his half brother Kim Jong-un? Given that Kim Jung-nam is in self exile and doesn't seem to pose a threat to Kim Jung-un's political power, why would his brother still want him on his death list? Also, the whole assassination seems rather amateurish, carried out in broad daylight in a public place with dozens of cameras around. Do you think the whole thing could have been plotted by someone else?


One thing that you can confidently say about following Korean news: there is never a dull moment. Real-life Game of Thrones-style international assassination carried out by two female assassins wielding poison darts on Valentine's Day. What other country can offer this kind of excitement?

Our dearly departed Kim Jong-nam (source)
Some basic facts first. Kim Jong-nam is the oldest son of Kim Jong-il, the previous dictator of North Korea, and half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator. Kim Jong-il had four wives: Kim Jong-nam was the son from the first wife, and Kim Jong-un was the son from the third wife. Kim Jong-nam has been living a life of exile, mostly based out of Macao and away from North Korea's power center. It is not entirely clear if Kim Jong-nam renounced the throne (so to speak,) or Kim Jong-un was more ruthless in seizing power. At any rate, Kim Jong-nam essentially lived as a wastrel. Until he was killed in Kuala Lumpur on February 14, he was most well known for the fact that he was caught while using a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

But none of this means Kim Jong-nam was not a threat to Kim Jong-un. In fact, Kim Jong-nam simply being alive posed a threat to Kim Jong-un. Despite the pretensions of communism, North Korea has long been a hereditary monarchy as a practical matter, emphasizing the lineage to the first dictator Kim Il-sung as the source of legitimacy. In such a system, the first son born to the first wife always has a greater claim of legitimacy than the third son born to the third wife. This threat is so great that, in fact, a significant number of North Koreans do not even know Kim Jong-un has older brothers.

The threat that Kim Jong-nam posed to Kim Jong-un's power was not merely theoretical. Because there are now enough number of North Korean defectors who escaped the country, there are ex-North Korean political groups that are attempting to establish a North Korean government-in-exile. These groups claim that, because the current North Korean dictatorship is illegally occupying North Korea, there needs to be a government-in-exile that represents the country in the international stage and take a leadership role in assisting resistance within North Korea. At least one of these groups reached out to Kim Jong-nam, asking him to the head of state for the exile government. Kim Jong-nam reportedly declined, but consider the possibilities if he took the offer.

To me, particularly notable is the fact that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours of an explosive report from Kyunghyang Shinmun, a South Korean newspaper. According to Kyunghyang, Kim Jong-nam served as a messenger between his father Kim Jong-il and Park Geun-hye, before Park became the president of South Korea. Kim Jong-nam apparently kept in regular contact with Park Geun-hye, and would deliver Park's letter to Kim Jong-il. (To be clear: it is actually old news that Park Geun-hye had been sending letters to Kim Jong-il, asking Kim to allow her group based in Europe to operate in Pyongyang. The news is that Kim Jong-nam was involved in the communication between the two.) 

In addition, Kyunghyang's report said when Park Geun-hye was running for president, the outgoing Lee Myung-bak administration--which belonged to the same party as Park--attempted to get Kim Jong-nam to defect to South Korea. The election of Park Geun-hye (versus the liberal candidate Moon Jae-in) was a close affair, and the conservative Lee administration was pulling out all stops for Park Geun-hye. (Other efforts included using South Korean spy agency to plant fake news stories via internet comments and fake tweets.) Having the oldest son of Kim Jong-il defect to South Korea would have been a massive victory for the conservatives' North Korea policy. However, the plan fell through apparently because Kim Jong-nam preferred to defect to Europe or the United States, if he were to defect at all.

Here, the usual caveat: I am just a guy with a blog who reads a lot of news. I don't have any special insight or insider information about this issue. But it does seem like a hell of a coincidence that Kim Jong-nam died within 48 hours after the news broke that he was discussing a possible defection into South Korea.

Could it have been someone other than Kim Jong-un that killed Kim Jong-nam? If you are seriously thinking that, two words for you: Occam's Razor. There is no reason to overthink this. Why would anyone else bother to kill Kim Jong-nam? Because the killing seems amateurish? You try killing someone with poison in just five seconds.

One thing to know about North Korean spy infrastructure is that it is both extremely well trained and highly amateurish. The story of Kim Hyeon-hee is instructive. Kim Hyeon-hee was a North Korean spy who planted a bomb on Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. Flight 858, which left from Baghdad to head to Seoul, exploded mid-air killing all 115 aboard. Kim was arrested, and the South Korean intelligence agency interrogated her for more than a month. 

For more than a month, Kim Hyeon-hee claimed that she was a Japanese woman named Mayumi, complete with a Japanese passport and an elaborate life story of growing up in Japan, told in flawless Japanese. North Korean spy agency had trained Kim Hyeon-hee for years to play this role. North Korea even kidnapped Japanese women and smuggled them into North Korea, so that the women could act as language tutors to North Korean spies who would in turn assume their identities. (This is probably the least reported outrageous stories about North Korea.)

South Korean intelligence, however, saw through the act. How? One of the clues was that Kim Hyeon-hee, the self-described Japanese woman named Mayumi, pretended not to know how to eat gim--the toasted seaweed that the Japanese call nori. (It's the black sheet that wraps a sushi roll.) Kim also referred to Prime Minister Nakasone, although at the time a new Prime Minister had already succeeded Nakasone--an event unmissable to any Japanese person from Japan. North Korean spy agency was well trained enough to turn a North Korean woman into a flawless Japanese speaker with a complete life story, but amateurish enough to not give the woman the small details of actually being a Japanese person--which is, when you think about it, exactly how a government would work.

There are already all kinds of stories swirling about Kim Jong-nam's assassination, about how the women who killed Kim Jong-nam thought they were participating in a game show, etc. All of this makes me wonder how the media would have told the story if the Korean Air Line bombing happened in the internet age. (A breathless headline might read: "Is the KAL bomber a false flag operation by the Japanese?") The best thing to do in this situation--really, in any situation--is to resist the urge to jump on the latest bizarre news, give the law enforcement the time to do their jobs, and process the story when it gets clearer.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Wasn't he actually killed on Monday morning, the 13th, but it was only reported in the news on Tuesday evening?

  2. Simple answer: Besides the threat to Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-un has NO MALE HEIRS. The succession is also Kim Jong-un's problem.

    And in historical hereditary monarchies, once the direct descent dies childless, the throne passes to the siblings, & in extreme cases like in Britain, to a far relative...

  3. "At first, she insisted that she wasPak Chui Hui, an orphan from northern China who had met an elderly Japanese man with whom she was traveling. She denied any sexual involvement with her partner Kim Seung Il. "

    Taken from wikipedia. IS there an error somewhere?

  4. When they saw through the Japanese ruse she switched to pretending to be Chinese. North Koreans often look more like people from NE China than to Southerners. My own wife is often taken for Chinese by actual Chinese.

  5. I read some reports which suggested that as well as being a wastrel, Kim Jong-Nam was making good money through involvements in smuggling things into North Korea, and that too was considered a threat, because some smugglers have good connections to the NK elites. I guess the thinking was that the longer and more detailed KJN's connections to this group became, the more likely it was that they would be willing to put him up as a figurehead in the wake of a coup.

  6. The probe night not succeed as Malaysia's a very corrupt country. They've(Najib and company) been taking money from China to manipulate the politics in their country, I won't be surprised if North Korea succeeds in bribing them to ease some of the accusations.

    1. Also Malaysia' super lax security definitely affected the location for killing KJN. In many countries, if someone suddenly collapses or someone were to try and suffocate another person, the airport security personnel would respond very quickly in case of an attack by terrorists. They would also have countermeasures available. But look, Kim Jong Nam had to walk himself to seek help. Even then, they didn't lock down the airport immediately.

  7. I don't agree that the killing was amateurish. Yes he was killed in public during light of day but blood isn't on any DPRK hands. Does anyone know if the inadvertent assassins had direct contact with North Koreans or was their another layer between the agents and perpetrators? I assume not considering the Malaysians have named specific North Korean suspects. Admittedly killing him in his bed with less flagrant means (VX=state, no?) would have created more uncertainty but don't underestimate the value of a grain of deniability, even if transparent. Master assassins no but amateurish?


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