The departure hall was abuzz with the familiar clamour of excited tourists, impatient business-people and frantic parents all hustling to get to the front of the check-in queue. As I dropped off my bags and shuffled through security, I noticed nothing amiss about 13 February at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Little did I know that Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, had been assassinated in the very same room only hours earlier.
Amidst the usual morning airport bustle, two unlikely young women had seized the portly 45-year old from behind, smothering his face with a cloth containing the lethal VX nerve agent, before releasing him and blending seamlessly back into the crowd.
Jong Nam stumbled to the terminal’s help desk and was rushed to hospital soon after. He died in the ambulance en route. Only the next day was his identity and the significance of this very public assassination revealed.
So, who really was Kim Jong Nam, and why was he killed?
Just over a decade ago, Jong Nam was expected to become North Korea’s next Supreme Leader. His father Kim Jong Il, former leader of North Korea, doted on his eldest son and appeared to be grooming him for the leadership. He allegedly once sat the young Jong Nam at his desk and told him: “this is the place where you will one day give orders”.
However, Jong Nam was never fully accepted by his family. The product of an affair between Jong Il and married actress Song Hye Rim, his illegitimate birth was kept secret due to the disapproval of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of North Korea’s dictatorship. Consequently, Jong Nam spent much of his childhood in solitude and later completed his education in Switzerland.
In his absence, Jong Il bore two other sons – Jong Chul and Jong Un – with his second mistress and acting first lady, Ko Yong Hui. As the distance between Jong Nam and the North Korean regime grew, Jong Un became the father’s favourite of the three (Jong Chul was ‘no good because he is like a little girl’).
Jong Nam’s extravagant overseas lifestyle and penchant for Macau’s casinos and nightlife earned him a reputation as North Korea’s first international playboy. Any chance of Jong Nam taking up his father’s mantle vanished in 2001, when he was arrested for traveling to Japan (to visit Tokyo Disneyland) with a forged passport under the name Pang Xiong – fat bear.
Effectively exiled after this embarrassing incident, Jong Nam spent the last few years of his life living incognito between residences in Macau, Singapore and Beijing. And then he was assassinated – in the middle of Malaysia’s busiest airport. Naturally, we have questions.
For instance, what motivated the actions of the two women who now face execution if charged with Jong Nam’s murder? Video footage shows Indonesian nightclub hostess Siti Aisyah, 25, celebrating her birthday just the night before Jong Nam’s death. Both she and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 28, claim they thought they were participating in a harmless reality television prank. New reports even suggest that they are human trafficking victims.
In any case, whoever orchestrated Jong Nam’s death is yet to confess. Perhaps, in a Game of Thrones-esque move, Kim Jong Un decided to do away with the potential threat to his crown. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the dictator has ordered a hit on a family member, nor is it the first time that Jong Nam has been the target.
Furthermore, North Korea is known to stockpile VX, a banned substance used in chemical warfare and considered a weapon of mass destruction. The implications of North Korea possessing such a deadly weapon are evident.
Of course, Kim Jong Un denies allegations that he had anything to do with his brother’s death, initially suggesting that the whole incident was a just hoax by the Malaysian government.
Prior to Jong Nam’s death, Malaysia shared strong diplomatic ties with North Korea, being the only country whose citizens could enter the rogue nation without a visa. However, tensions between the two countries escalated after North Korea expelled Malaysia’s ambassador and then banned all Malaysians in the country from leaving.
So, what does all this mean for the rest of us?
Last week, North Korea’s UN ambassador accused South Korea and the United States of orchestrating the murder ‘to tarnish the North’s image’. He also stated that North Korea would respond by bolstering its defences and capacity to ‘pre-emptive[ly] strike with a nuclear force’.
Let’s hope that like its failed missile launch on Wednesday, North Korea’s explosive threats will simply fizzle out.
Tess Styles is a final year undergraduate studying International Relations and Asia-Pacific Politics at the Australian National University.