Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, died on Tuesday after suddenly falling ill at a Malaysian airport, according to police who are currently investigating a potential assassination.
Kim, who is believed to be 45 years old, died on Monday morning en route to the hospital from Kuala Lumpur airport. South Korean media outlets claim that Kim died after allegedly being stabbed at the airport by two female operatives using poisoned needles. Other reports claim the operatives sprayed him in the face with poison.
Malaysia’s Criminal Investigation Department provided the Telegraph with the following statement on Mr. Kim’s death:
“Kim Jong Nam was feeling unwell on Monday morning while he was waiting for a flight to Macau at KLIA.
“He was taken to KLIA clinic for further treatment, but because of the condition he was in, he was rushed to Putrajaya hospital, but passed away soon after arriving.
“Police have classified the death of Kim Jong Nam as sudden death and are waiting for the full postmortem report to decide further action.”
Some speculate that Kim’s death was the work of the Pyongyang regime. Agents on behalf of the North Korean government have targeted defectors with poisoned needles in the past, although the details of Kim’s death remain unknown.
If Kim’s death is proven to be the work of North Korea’s government, experts say it likely means Kim Jong-un deliberately acted to have his brother killed. “This is the final touch in consolidating power,” Youngshik Bong, a North Korean expert at Yonsei University in Seoul told FT. “We must now pay more attention to (…Kim Jong-un) for there are no other checks and balances.”
Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Kim’s death, regardless of how he died, will further complicate “an already unstable situation” with North Korea.
“Whether the attack was directed by the North Korean regime or by one of their neighbors as a message to the regime is probably too difficult to discern,” Karako wrote in an email to the Daily Dot. “What is clear is that such dynamics only complicate and worsen an already unstable situation.”
As the oldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong-nam was once meant to be his successor. But he fell out of favor with the Supreme Leader after being arrested at the Tokyo airport for using a fake passport in May 2001. Reports claim that Kim and his family were attempting to visit Disneyland, either in Tokyo or the United States.
Kim was a frequent traveler to China but had not defected from the North Korean government. Emails revealed in a 2012 book about Kim that he opposed North Korea’s hereditary transfers of power and had doubts about his younger half-brother’s ability to govern.
“The power elite that have ruled the country will continue to be in control,” wrote Kim Jong-nam in an email. He added, “I have my doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern.”
Kim was at the time unaware that he had fallen out of favor with his father to lead the regime and denied reports that he had defected to China, according to a 2009 interview with Chinese news station NTDTV.
North Korea has been universally condemned for its Sunday morning test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Experts believe the ICBM is the most advanced the world has seen from North Korea and was meant to target South Korea or Japan.
President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe issued a joint statement on Sunday in which Abe called the launch “absolutely intolerable.” Trump made no direct reference to the launch at all but pledged “100 percent” support for Japan, calling the country a “great ally.”
Update 10:53am CT, Feb. 14: Added comment from Tom Karako.