The Assassination of Kim Jong Nam
On February 13th, Kim Jong Nam, the older half-brother of Kim Jong Un, the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was assassinated at an airport in Malaysia. This event offers insights into the “Hermit Kingdom” and shows the audacious nature of the regime.
In this report, we begin with a biography of King Jong Nam. Next, we will recap the assassination. The following section will discuss the context of the murder, including China’s difficult relations with North Korea and potential rationale behind the assassination. As always, we will conclude with potential market ramifications.
Who was Kim Jong Nam?
Kim Jong Nam was born in 1971, the grandson of the “Great Leader,” Kim Il Song, and the son of Kim Jong Il, referred to as the “Dear Leader.” Kim Jong Nam’s mother was an actress, Sung Hye Rim. Kim Jong Il never married Kim Jong Nam’s mother because the Great Leader disapproved of his son’s relationship with the actress. Because of this disapproval, Kim Jong Nam led a cloistered existence, hidden from his grandfather.
At the age of eight, Kim Jong Nam, along with his mother, was sent to Moscow for school. By this time, his mother was considered “unstable” and she essentially abandoned her son. The young man didn’t care much for the Soviet Union and eventually ended up in Geneva, Switzerland for his education. There he lived a low-profile existence learning languages and passing himself off as the son of a diplomat. The young man showed an interest in technology while in Europe.
At the age of 18, he was forced to return to North Korea. He became close to his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister, and uncle, the Dear Leader’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek. Kim Jong Nam was given government positions monitoring technology; reportedly, he was instrumental in creating North Korea’s intranet.
Still, it became apparent that Kim Jong Il had become jaded with his oldest son. Instead, he lavished attention on his youngest mistress, Ko Young Hee, another actress, and his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, the “Young Marshall.”
As the oldest son faded from relevance, he began to travel extensively, spending time in China and Southeast Asia. There was a rather infamous incident in 2001 when Kim Jong Nam, his wife, son and their au pair were detained in Japan. They were trying to enter the country on forged Dominican Republic passports, reportedly to visit Disneyland. After this embarrassment, Kim Jong Nam rarely returned to Pyongyang.
Since 2001, Kim Jong Nam lived under the protection of the Chinese government. It appears that he mostly lived in Macau, although there are reports he also had a residence in Beijing. There have also been reports that he had two separate families in both cities. Chinese security officials dubbed him “Fat Bear”; he was known to be a regular at gambling establishments and generally lived the life of a playboy. At the same time, there are unsubstantiated rumors that he may have participated in money laundering for the DPRK.
As his health was declining, Kim Jong Il designated his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor, ignoring the usual dynastic succession of elder sons. On December 19, 2011, Kim Jong Il died of an apparent heart attack.
Overall, Kim Jong Nam was a tragic figure. He was hidden from his grandfather and treated as an illegitimate son. At a young age, he was shipped out of the country and abandoned by his mother. Although the 2001 incident is often cited as the beginning of Kim Jong Nam’s downfall, in reality, his father didn’t seem all that fond of his oldest son. That fact, more than anything, probably led to his eventual exile.