February 16, 2017 4:30 am JST

Half brother met his end as Kim's paranoia deepened

North Korean leader plotted for five years to eliminate potential threat

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

Kim Jong Nam, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. © AP

SEOUL -- The suspected assassination of Kim Jong Nam has shed light on his strained relationship with the North Korean leader, who obsessively hunted for his half brother in a plot that could have come straight out of a spy novel.

Kim Jong Un attended a ceremony in Pyongyang on Wednesday commemorating the 75th birthday of his late father, Kim Jong Il, according to state broadcaster Korean Central TV. He was not reported to have commented on his half brother's death.

But Kim Yong Nam, his No. 2 and president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, praised the deceased leader for coming up with the perfect solution for the succession -- which bypassed his eldest son.

Kim Jong Un came into power in December 2011 upon his father's death. Kim Jong Nam was not in the country at the time, but Kim Jong Un gave a standing order for his assassination shortly thereafter, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service. The first attempt was made early the following year.

In April 2012, Kim Jong Nam sent a letter to his brother begging for his and his family's lives. But the North Korean spy agency apparently continued searching for an opening to eliminate him.

Five years later, Kim Jong Nam was attacked on Monday in the second terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, which is reserved for low-cost carriers. He was waiting to board a flight to Macau, according to Malaysian national news agency Bernama.

From poison needles to a splash of a chemical, there are different stories circulating on how exactly Kim met his demise. The South Korean NIS strongly believes some type of toxic substance was used. He apparently died on the way to the hospital.

Some question whether Kim Jong Nam really posed any threat to Kim Jong Un. He spent much of his time abroad, and had no political influence or support base at home, said a former North Korean diplomat. His alleged supporter, uncle Jang Song Thaek, was executed in 2013.

The five-year hunt for his half brother speaks to his obsessive personality, according to a former official in the Korean Workers' (Communist) Party. Kim Jong Nam was doomed the moment Kim Jong Un was named the future leader, the former diplomat said.

"Kim Jong Nam attempted to defect to South Korea or another country and ignored Jong Un's orders to come home, which is why he was assassinated," said an expert on North Korea.

Kim Jong Nam repeatedly boasted that he, as Kim Jong Il's eldest son, was the rightful heir to the line of North Korean rulers founded by his grandfather Kim Il Sung, which angered Kim Jong Un, according to Choi Sung-yong, who heads a group for families of South Koreans abducted by the North.

Given Kim Jong Un's recent dismissal of a close aide and head of the secret police, some believe the murder resulted from a race between the secret police and the spy agency to prove their loyalty to the supreme leader.

Chinese authorities were reportedly protecting Kim Jong Nam, according to the NIS. There is speculation that Beijing hoped to install him as North Korea's leader should crisis erupt in the Korean Peninsula. With the new U.S. administration talking tough on Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un might have eliminated his half brother to prevent a possible ouster backed by China.

The killing of Kim Jong Nam, like that of his uncle Jang four years ago, is expected to worsen relations between North Korea and China. Pyongyang's nuclear and missile development is not only a message to the U.S., but to China as well.

When asked by a reporter Wednesday whether Beijing had been protecting Kim Jong Nam, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not directly respond. "The Malaysian side is investigating" the murder, he said.

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