By Tahiat Mahboob  

Kim Jong-nam, the eldest child of North Korea’s late ruler Kim Jong-il, and the half-brother of the country’s current leader Kim Jong-un was murdered in Malaysia on February 13, 2017. This political assassination was like something out of a spy novel.

North Korea: Murder in the Family

Kim Jong-nam was at a self check-in kiosk at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a flight to Macau. He was approached by two women,  who flanked him on either side. One of them put a cloth soaked in an unknown liquid over his mouth. Then they calmly walked off. The whole encounter took less than five seconds. Kim Jong-nam immediately contacted airport security and they led him to the clinic on-site. By the time he was in an ambulance heading to the hospital, he was dead.

As the investigation unfolded, two bizarre details came to light. The murder weapon was a neurotoxin called VX — one of the most deadly chemical weapons on earth. And the two women who carried out the crime thought thought what they had done was part of an online prank show.

Within days, the two women — Siti Aisyah from Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam — were arrested for Kim Jong-nam’s murder. But CCTV appeared to show several North Korean secret agents orchestrating the events in the airport that day. It was suspected that Kim Jong-nam was murdered on the orders of his younger brother,  for being critical of Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

“Hundred percent Kim Jong-un gave the order,” says Sue Mi Terry, who worked as a CIA Senior Analyst between 2001-2008. “I think Kim Jong-un wanted to make a point to any would-be rivals, potential opponents, defectors out there, saying, ‘I can kill you in any manner.’ So I think he wanted to be public He wanted the whole world to know.”

It was a public demise for a man who grew up privately behind palace gates in Pyongyang before falling out of favour and leaving North Korea.

Here are 20 things to know about Kim Jong-nam:

1. Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

2. He was born in Pyongyang on May 10, 1971.

3. He has three half-siblings: half-sister Kim Sul-song and half-brothers Kim Jong-chul and Kim Jong-un.

4. His mother Song Hye-rim was a North Korean film actress and Kim Jong-il’s mistress. She was six years older than Kim Jong-il and still married when the affair began. She was forced to divorce her husband and move into a special residence in Pyongyang.

5. Because of the nature of their relationship, Kim Jong-il kept Song Hye-rim and their son a secret from his father. Thus Kim Jong-nam had a cloistered life growing up. He was close to his paternal aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who went as far as trying to adopt her nephew.

6. Kim Jong-nam was also close to his paternal aunt’s husband Chang Song-thaek, who rose to become one of North Korea's most powerful men. In 2013, Chang Song-thaek was executed on the orders of Kim Jong-un. According to various reports, Kim Jong-un ordered the execution upon learning that Chang Song-thaek had asked China to support a coup that would replace him with his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam.

7. Even though he was close to his father's family, in 1979 Kim Jong-nam was sent abroad. He studied in Switzerland and lived in Russia and became fluent in English and French.

8. Kim Jong-nam returned to Pyongyang in 1988 and joined the family business. During the North Korean famine of the 1990s known as the Arduous March, Kim Jong-nam was involved in auditing state-owned factories for finance and business practices. He also attended the execution of party and economic officials during these audits.

9. His family’s dictatorship in North Korea took a toll on Kim Jong-nam in his early 20s. This combined with his exposure to the outside world made him rebellious. He wanted out. While it did not please his father, eventually Kim Jong-il let his son go, but only as far as neighbouring China. In the 1990s Kim Jong-nam left North Korea and set up residences in Macau and Beijing.

10. There are varying reports on Kim Jong-nam’s marriages and children. His first marriage was in 1995 was to a woman called Shin Jong-hui. They had a son called Kim Kum-sol. He had two children with his second wife, Lee Hye-kyong: son Kim Han-sol and daughter Kim Sol-hui. His third wife is Myung Ra (family name unknown) and they had a daughter called Kim Hyun-kyung.

11. He is reported to have had at least two mistresses, both flight attendants. One is Chen Jia-Xi, who worked for Air China. The other is Yong Ra, a former flight attendant with North Korean state airline, Air Koryo.

12. By the late 1990s Kim Jong-nam was living the life of an international playboy. He was reported to have voracious appetites for alcohol and women. That wasn’t all. “He did like to treat his friends to the talents and favours of ladies of the night,” says Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He also liked to watch what was happening adds Madden.

13. Even though he was living outside North Korea, Kim Jong-nam still had a key role in his father’s regime. He was running an international business network, generating funds for the family. “Back then, Kim Jong-nam acted as second-in-command,” recalls Alex Hwang, a friend and the owner of a restaurant Kim Jong-nam frequented in in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “The majority of North Korean businessmen working abroad, especially in Malaysia, were linked to him.”

14. He was also involved in technology acquisition. He would buy computers and software and send it back to North Korea.

15. In May 2001, Kim Jong-nam was caught sneaking into Japan. He was using a fake Dominican Republic passport and the alias Pang Xiong, meaning “Fat Bear” in Mandarin. He had wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. It was an embarrassment to North Korea and he fell out of favour with his father.

16. In August 2008 his father Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke. Despite the fallout with his family, in October 2008 Kim Jong-nam traveled to France to meet with a brain surgeon in Paris about his father’s condition. While details of the meeting are unknown, his trip to France seemed to have the desired effect. The surgeon, François-Xavier Roux, visited Pyongyang to treat his father.

17. Kim Jong-nam gave an interview in October 2010 with Japan’s Asahi TV, where he shared his views on his younger sibling succeeding Kim Jong-il.  “Personally, I’m against the third-generation succession,” he told the station. “But I think there were internal factors behind the decision, and if this is the case, then we should follow that.” He also mentioned that he had no interest in taking power himself.

18. Between 2010 and 2012, Kim Jong-nam exchanged almost a 150 emails with Yoji Gomi, a Japanese reporter at The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper. In them he repeatedly criticized the decision to pass power to his half-brother. He suggested that the new leader lacked experience and would end up as a puppet. He was also critical of how North Korea was being run. Gomi also conducted a seven-hour-long interview with Kim Jong-nam in Macau in January 2011. These emails and interview became the basis for Gomi’s 2012 book My Father, Kim Jong Il, and Me.

19. According to The Telegraph, in 2011 Kim Jong-nam survived an assassination attempt  around the time of his father’s death while he was living in Macau. He fled Macau in fear of his life.

20. According to South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, Kim Jong-nam sent a letter to Kim Jong-un in April 2012, after the assassination attempt, begging for the lives of himself and his family. The letter said, “I hope you cancel the order for the punishment of me and my family. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and we know that the only way to escape is committing suicide.”