News analysis

Kim Jong Nam's death: Murder only shows up Kim Jong Un's insecurity

Half-brother's death cements his reign but raises doubts about grip on power: Analysts

He was murdered in broad daylight, in the most crowded of places, in a foreign land.

The very public assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam, allegedly by two women, in a Kuala Lumpur airport on Monday not only cemented the reclusive regime's "reign of terror", but also raised doubts about the young leader's grip on power, analysts say.

There is also concern that international condemnation may drive the North further into isolation, especially with the murder coming just a day after it drew rebuke for firing a new ballistic missile as a show of force against the United States and Japan reaffirming their security alliance.

Five years into his rule, Mr Kim Jong Un has already orchestrated some 140 purges of senior officials. The killing of his half-brother is the most high profile since the execution of their pro-China uncle Jang Song Thaek in December 2013.

Experts say the brash leader may have viewed his older sibling as a thorn and felt the need to eliminate him, especially when the brother was close to their uncle, who was branded a traitor. What's more, Mr Kim Jong Nam - the eldest son of the late leader Kim Jong Il and once his heir apparent - was openly critical of the current regime and opposed dynastic succession.

An undated photo of Mr Kim Jong Un inspecting a construction site, released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency last month. Experts say he may have viewed his brother as a thorn and felt the need to eliminate him.
An undated photo of Mr Kim Jong Un inspecting a construction site, released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency last month. Experts say he may have viewed his brother as a thorn and felt the need to eliminate him. PHOTO: REUTERS


"It is plausible to expect that Kim Jong Un would seek the elimination of potential threats, including family members who have made past critical comments regarding his leadership," Korea expert Scott Snyder from New York-based think-tank Council on Foreign Relations told The Straits Times. "As a potential alternative heir of the Kim family and former potential heir to Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam could be regarded as a distant threat."

  • Over 140 officials executed: Report

  • SEOUL • More than 140 senior party and military officials deemed a threat to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's authority have been reportedly executed since he took power in 2011, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a research group affiliated with South Korea's National Intelligence Service.

    The killings were often carried out using machine guns and even flamethrowers, the New York Times reported, quoting the institute. Here are recent high-profile cases.

    JULY 2016

    North Korean Vice-Premier Choe Yong Gon was said to have been executed for voicing frustration at Mr Kim's policies, reported South Korea's Yonhap news agency. Mr Choe was killed by firing squad.

    APRIL 2015

    Defence Minister Hyon Yong Chol was said to have been executed by an anti-aircraft gun for insubordination and dozing off during formal military rallies, according to South Korean officials.

    DECEMBER 2013

    Mr Jang Song Thaek, Mr Kim's uncle, was said to have been executed on charges of factionalism, corruption and sedition. He was married to Ms Kim Kyong Hui, the sister of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Mr Jang was once considered the second-most powerful man in the country.

Dr Chung Eun Sook, a senior research fellow at South Korean think-tank Sejong Institute, said Mr Kim Jong Un might also have felt "insecure" knowing that his older sibling, who spent over a decade living outside North Korea, was more well versed in world affairs.

"Externally, it looks like Kim Jong Un has solidified his power, but I don't think he feels secure inside," she told The Straits Times.

Dr Chung added that the assassination was "more than intentional", and that it must have received "direct or indirect approval from the dictator".

South Korea's spy agency said yesterday that Pyongyang agents have had a "standing order" to assassinate Mr Kim Jong Nam since 2012. He had been living in exile in Beijing and Macau since falling out of favour with his father in the early 2000s, and was reportedly under protection by the Chinese authorities.

After his brother assumed power in late 2011, Mr Kim Jong Nam, fearing for his life, went into hiding in Singapore and Malaysia. He was waiting at a Kuala Lumpur airport for his flight to Macau when he was attacked with a deadly liquid by two women who fled in a taxi. Malaysian police arrested a woman yesterday.

North Korea observer Cheong Seong Chang raised the possibility that he may have tried to defect or threatened to defect in return for money to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. "His behaviour could have angered the North's leadership, and they killed him," he said in a commentary.

However, Dr Cheong said the assassination does the North more harm than good, as it could invite criticism that it endorses terrorism and push it further into isolation.

Some analysts have also pointed out that it was not in Mr Kim Jong Un's best political interest to assassinate his brother in Malaysia, as it might irritate both Malaysia and China, with whom North Korea maintains friendly relations.

There is also talk that China has been sheltering Mr Kim Jong Nam to keep him as a trump card in case the Kim Jong Un regime collapses. In 2012, he was cited as saying North Korea needed "Chinese-style economic reforms".

Dr Chung said it is possible that China might get angry, but may not feel comfortable to discuss the issue openly or direct blame at North Korea since the incident happened beyond its shores.

Yonhap news agency reported that South Korea's military plans to use loudspeakers along the inter-Korean border to inform people in the reclusive country of the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'Murder only shows up Kim Jong Un's insecurity'. Print Edition | Subscribe