The Koreas

The Mysterious Death of Kim Jong-nam

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The Koreas

The Mysterious Death of Kim Jong-nam

Autopsy be damned; it was a “poison” attack.

The Mysterious Death of Kim Jong-nam
Credit: Flickr/ Hunny Alrohaif

A man of royal North Korean blood died under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia and later that day his death was widely speculated in media to have been an assassination by poison.

Even if the Cold War-esque narrative is true — an early report was that he’d been slain by poison needle — how did the story come together so quickly even before official identification of the body?

For one, the South Korean government appears to have provided domestic media its suspected version of the man’s death before any facts in the case surfaced.

The dead man, by the way, has now been officially identified as Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of Kim Jong-un and the eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. According to Reuters, the Malaysian government confirmed the elder brother’s death on Thursday, several days after the alleged assassination.

North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur requested the body, Reuters reported, but there has been no mention of the death in North Korean state media.

South Korea’s TV Chosun was one of the first to break the story, reporting two female assassins offed Kim in a poison needle attack at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The TV network cited multiple, unnamed South Korean government sources.

The government is known for putting out its own interpretation first, said Michael Madden, a prominent North Korea watcher and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies U.S. Korea Institute.

“The bigger annoyance for [Malaysia] and for some of us Pyongyang watchers is that Seoul decided, as they almost always do, to beat the relevant institutions and individuals involved. They do this all the time,” he said. “It’s high-handed and irritating.”

Madden said it’s likely Seoul was playing a “guessing game” about the poison needle attack based on tactics used by countries during the Cold War. He also said North Korean intelligence agencies have used poisons before.

South Korean lawmakers said the country’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told them female assassins killed Kim with poison, according to Reuters. But it’s unclear how the government knows that and if they know how Kim was poisoned.

Media have widely reported Kim was attacked with a chemical spray in a tag-team effort by the assassins. According to CNN, Malaysian police have not commented about South Korea’s suspicions of how Kim died.

There are, however, plenty of reports suggesting North Korea was behind the attack. The South China Morning Post reported Kim told close friends he felt like he was living on borrowed time. In a another piece, the New York Times wrote that “haunted by fears of assassins, Mr. Kim lived much of his life wandering abroad.”

Much of what happened in the KL airport terminal, however, is speculation.

An autopsy has been conducted, but the results haven’t been made public. Malaysia has said it will return Kim’s body to the North Korean embassy, Reuters reported, but not before all procedures are completed.

Three suspects in the case have been arrested as well: two females reportedly from Indonesia and Vietnam, and a Malaysian man (reportedly the boyfriend of one of the female suspects). Piece by piece, the exact cause of Kim’s death may be revealed by investigators in Malaysia. Until then, news consumers have a few riveting stories to choose from.