Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half-brother of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, was killed in an attack at Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysian police confirmed on Tuesday, in an apparent assassination.
The 46-year-old was assaulted by a woman who covered his face with a cloth laced with liquid as he was waiting for a flight to Macau, said Fadzil Ahmat, a Malaysian police official. He was confirmed dead after being taken to hospital. [Financial Times]
The kindest way to remember Kim Jong-nam may be as a man who was never cut out to be a tyrant. This must have been obvious from the circumstances of his fall from primogeniture — he was caught entering Japan on a fake passport on his way to Tokyo Disneyland. Maybe he never wanted the job, and maybe it was his downfall that caused him to reflect on the circumstances of his countrymen. He was neither a hero nor a martyr, although he later wrote a book criticizing the rule of his half-brother (whom he claimed he never met). Although there were rumors of a previous attempt to assassinate him by staging a car accident, Kim Jong-nam never really seemed interested enough in politics to call a dissident, either. He seemed interested in being happy. And any man who abstains from the opportunity to enslave others ought to be remembered fondly for that alone.
Friends who said they’d met Jong-nam and found him to be, against all odds, nice — which is to say he was affable, approachable, and spoke good English. His son, Kim Han-sol certainly seems like a nice kid. After doing an interview in which he criticized the regime’s human rights abuses, he went into hiding. My heart goes out to him, not just for the sadness he must feel at the loss of his father, but for the terror that he must feel for his own safety now. (Kim Jong-nam also had a daughter, who lives in Macau.)
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The propagation of terror is surely one of the reasons why Kim Jong-un committed this act of fratricide. I don’t know that for a fact, of course, but as Mark Tokola asks, “Cui bono?” Someone in the U.S. government who probably knows things I don’t “strongly believes” Kim Jong-un did it. I can’t think of another logical explanation.
(Update: Malaysian police have arrested a North Korean man, Ri Jong-chol, a chemistry specialist, in connection with the murder. Incredibly, Ri kept a Facebook page that says he graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 2000, a school in Massachusetts in 2010, and had been studying in Kolkata, India. He liked Dave Mraz, Ha Ji-won, and was “interested in men,” unusual things for a North Korean who surely knew he was being monitored closely to admit openly. In other words, an engagement success story! Dagyum Ji of NK News reports that Malaysian police are also seeking four more North Korean suspects: Ri Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Sang Hac, 34; O Jong Gil, 55; Ri Jae Nam, 57, all of whom entered Malaysia in late January or early February, and who appear to have made a clean getaway to Pyongyang. Police are also seeking another North Korean, Ri Ji U, and two other unidentified men “believed to be North Koreans” for questioning.)
I don’t think there’s any question that it was murder, either, although the reports still can’t agree on exactly how Kim Jong-nam was done in. Surveillance video shows two women doing the deed and then fleeing in a taxi. (Update: Watch the video at this link.) In contrast to the Financial Times’s account, other reports say they sprayed poison on his face or that they jabbed him with one or more poison needles. Even the police weren’t sure yesterday afternoon. Both versions would be half-true if one chloroformed him and one jabbed him. (Update: from the grainy CCTV video, it looks like “LOL girl” reached around Kim Jong-nam from behind and put a cloth over his face.)
The news of the investigation is developing quickly, and there are many conflicting or unverified accounts of suspects being pursued, arrested, or dead. Malaysian authorities say they have arrested this woman, who was carrying a (possibly fake) Vietnamese name and passport.
— Hakim Rahman (@abdhakimrahman) February 15, 2017
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that police have also arrested another woman from
Burma (Update: One woman with a Vietnamese passport, one Indonesian woman, her boyfriend, and this North Korean man, a chemist who attended high school in Massachusetts, Kim Il-Sung University, and a grad school in Kolkata, India). NK News says they may be pursuing up to five other suspects. The Joongang Ilbo suggests Kim Jong-nam may have been lured to Malaysia by a romantic relationship with one of the women. This may be one of the killers.
— LIM Yun Suk (@yunsukCNA) February 15, 2017
This report, which quotes an unnamed Japanese official, says she and her accomplice are both already dead. (Update: wrong; they’re both alive and under arrest. The best compilation of solid evidence of how the attack unfolded and who the attackers are is actually at this Facebook post. Although the women are apparently claiming that they thought they were only playing a prank on Kim Jong-nam, the video shows “LOL girl” striking quickly and Kim Jong-nam struggling. I don’t buy it.) In the past, RGB agents have been under orders to kill themselves before being taken alive, although not all of them have followed through with those orders in recent years.
Whatever the precise facts turn out to be, this was obviously an elaborate plot that unfolded over the space of months, if not years. Bloomberg quotes Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, as saying the murder didn’t have its impetus in recent events, but was simply the successful conclusion of a longstanding fatwa. Still, it’s difficult to believe that the plotters would have gone through with it without a final go-ahead from Pyongyang, from the very top.
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In recent years, poison — specifically, needles spring-loaded with neostigmine bromide — have been the standard M.O. for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, or RGB. Starting on page 59 of my report on North Korea’s state sponsorship of terrorism, I describe five such assassinations and foiled attempts since 2008. If you accept that the evidence will likely show that the North Korean government did the hit on Kim Jong-nam, this was a clear-cut case of international terrorism.
There are at least three statutory definitions of terrorism, all of them inconsistent and imperfect for reasons I discussed in my report, starting on page 5. If one makes a lowest common denominator of these definitions and sifts through a few decades of State Department reports for interpretive precedent, it’s possible to write a legal definition of international terrorism that consists of five elements:
- It must be unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed;
- It must involve a violent act; an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; or a threat of such an act;
- It must involve the citizens or the territory of more than one country;
- It must be perpetrated by a subnational group or clandestine agent against a noncombatant target; and
- It must appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government.
Of the first three elements there’s no doubt, and Kim Jong-nam was a noncombatant. If the killers are caught, they were probably agents of the RGB, which employs women as clandestine agents to hunt down refugees in China, and as assassins. The terrorist acts of state actors through their clandestine agents can be a basis for a SSOT listing; in fact, it was two bombings by the RGB that caused the U.S. to put North Korea on the list in 1988. The Secretary of State has the discretion to find that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. He doesn’t need a federal appeals court to tell him that (although one has, and my report also cites several other district court decisions).
As to the regime’s apparent intent, its motives must have been political. Kim Jong-nam had criticized his brother’s regime and predicted that it wouldn’t last. As Dennis Halpin explained, he was the best alternative successor to the family bloodline if China needed a North Korean Pu Yi, a possibility Kim Jong-un couldn’t allow. The most important reason to kill Kim Jong-nam was to warn Thae Yong-ho and others like him, who have been defecting in greater numbers. Pyongyang sees that surge of defections as a threat to its survival. It must want to send a message to Thae Yong-ho and others that they aren’t safe anywhere, even if they’re under government protection (in Kim Jong-nam’s case, China’s).
In one sense, those theories explain the assassination of Kim Jong-nam logically, but in another sense, it all seems illogical. Kim Jong-un must have known that this act of fratricide would shock South Korean voters in an election year, at a time when opinions are still unstable. He must have known that the odds were already high that the Trump administration would put his government back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, triggering additional sanctions. He must have known that the evidence would lead back to him, further discrediting a naive and sympathetic commentariat that tried to sell us the image of Kim Jong-un as a Swiss-educated reformer, while encouraging more subsidies and investments to finance and sustain his rule. He certainly knew that assassinating someone under Chinese protection would irritate (but not alienate) his most important ally. But then, Pyongyang’s business model has long involved a curious combination of obsession with, and disregard for, world opinion.
Thus, if the reports are mostly accurate and the investigation validates a few reasonable inferences, this would be a clear-cut case of international terrorism, not that more evidence is needed to support a re-listing. Returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism is both legally justified and good policy. It’s not just out of regard for Kim Jong-nam’s defiantly passive life that we should do it, but to protect more heroic men and women like Park Sang-hak, Thae Yong-ho, Hyeonseo Lee, and potentially dozens more would-be defectors who must be wondering if America will stand by them if they take the risk of crossing the line.