Earlier this week, Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was ambushed by two women at Kuala Lumpur airport with a poisoned cloth, police say. He died en route to the hospital shortly after the attack. Three people have since been arrested.
The circumstances surrounding Kim Jong Nam’s mysterious death seem to be ripped from the pages of a spy novel. Our Tokyo correspondent Anna Fifield went live on Facebook on Wednesday from the spot where the attack took place.
1. Who did it?
All fingers are pointed, of course, toward North Korea and to the regime. Kim Jong Un is the younger half brother of Kim Jong Nam, and he has been clearing out potential rivals to his power. A few years ago, he had his uncle executed. Since then we have seen purges of many other high-ranking officials from security and military services in particular. These deaths are all seen as a way of Kim Jong Un trying to consolidate his grip on power inside North Korea. Analysts say the chances are that the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam to remove him as a potential alternate.
There have been rumors China was protecting Kim Jong Nam and that he had been living in a securely guarded compound in Beijing. It is also believed China was keeping Kim Jong Nam in reserve, ready to install him as a leader in North Korea if things turned sour under Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Kim Jong Un has made no secret of his hostility for the Chinese government.
2. How do we know the victim is definitely Kim Jong Nam?
Kim Jong Nam was traveling using a North Korean passport with a known alias for him and has been positively identified. There are a number of photos of Kim Jong Nam that exist, and he has given a few interviews over the years. Kim Jong Nam is a frequent traveler and has not lived in North Korea for at least 15 years. In recent years he has been spotted in Singapore, Jakarta and Beijing.
The short answer is very few, if any. Kim Jong Un, who is only 33, has steadily gone through the ranks eliminating people who could pose a leadership challenge to him. Over the five years Kim Jong Un has been in power, we have seen a steady series of purges and executions particularly of officials on the military and security side who have been removed from positions or died in mysterious “accidents.”
4. Are these executions a sign of weakness or a sign of strength?
You can argue it both ways. Some will say it’s a sign of weakness and that through these methods, Kim Jong Un is showing that he is uncertain in his grip on power and that he has reasons to fear a power struggle, which is why he is taking out potential rivals. Other analysts would contend that these executions and assassinations are about Kim Jong Un showing strength, proving his power and control.
5. What does the assassination mean for U.S. policy toward North Korea?
The assassination certainly raises the stakes for the United States and complicates the situation a lot more.
Over the weekend, North Korea fired a ballistic missile, the first test since President Trump’s election in November. Trump has said very little about how he will deal with North Korea, other than to say he won’t allow the country to get an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States, though he hasn’t said exactly how.
Analysts are now talking about how the Trump administration should be dealing with North Korea. There is a case to be made that this could land North Korea back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea was taken off the list 10 years ago as part of a denuclearization deal. It’s likely there will now be a push to have North Korea re-listed again to bring about more sanctions and punishment.