Malaysian police confirmed that Kim Jong Nam — who was thought to be 45 and living outside North Korea for more than a decade — was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport early Monday while waiting for a flight to Macau, a center of gambling and nightlife that was among his haunts.
“A woman came from behind and covered his face with a cloth laced with a liquid,” Police Chief Fadzil Ahmat told Bernama, the Malaysian state news agency.
Just three years ago, Kim Jong Un had his uncle — and Kim Jong Nam’s mentor — executed on suspicion of building an alternate power base. Meanwhile, a slew of high-profile defections have raised questions about the stability of the regime.
“Kim Jong Nam was involved in some funny business,” said Michael Madden, editor of North Korea Leadership Watch, a specialist website devoted to the ruling Kim family. He was rumored to have worked in computing in North Korea — now notorious for cyberattacks — and money laundering throughout Southeast Asia.
Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership expert at CNA, a research company in Arlington, Va., said there were at least three possible reasons Kim Jong Un would want to get rid of his half brother.
It could be that Kim Jong Un, who is only 33, is in the end stages of consolidating his leadership. “And when the consolidation phase comes to an end in totalitarian regimes, patronage systems can be targets for purges,” Gause said.
It could be a signal to China that Beijing doesn’t call the shots in North Korea. Or it could be a sign of an internal power struggle in Pyongyang.
“I think all of these are very possible,” Gause said.