In May 2001, Japanese immigration officials arrested a 30-year-old man at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport who was travelling with a forged Dominican Republican passport using a Chinese alias, Pang Xiong. Later, it turned out that the real name of Pang Xiong, meaning ‘fat bear’ in Mandarin, was Kim Jong-nam, and he was the eldest son of the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. During his three-day detention in Tokyo, he apparently told his interrogators that he wanted to visit the city’s Disneyland. He was deported to China. The incident caused a major embarrassment to the North Korean leader and he cancelled a planned visit to Beijing. For Kim Jong-nam, then seen as the successor of Kim Jong-il, life would never be the same again. He fell out of favour with his father and moved abroad to live a wayward life, mostly in Macau and Beijing, till his gruesome death on February 13 at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. According to Malaysian investigators, he was assassinated with VX nerve agent, one of the most dangerous chemical weapons.
Rise and fall
Born in Pyongyang in May 1971, Kim Jong-nam grew up with his maternal relatives, away from the public glare, as the relationship between his father and mother Song Hye-rim was not approved by grandfather Kim Il-sung, founder leader of North Korea. Ms. Song was a leading film actress in Korea Film Studio when Kim Jong-il met her in the 1960s, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch website. Ms. Song divorced her husband and started living with Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-nam is their only child. He did his schooling abroad, mostly in Moscow, and his early college education in Geneva. By the late 1980s, Kim Jong-Il, his father, had consolidated his position in Pyongyang’s power circles. In 1988, Kim Jong-nam returned home and launched his political career. He first worked as a cadre in the Ministry of People’s Security. After Kim Jong-il became the North Korean leader following his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-nam also rose through the ranks. He was appointed to the important DPRK Computer Committee in 1998, which was overseeing the regime’s key technology initiatives. But all chances for him to succeed his father were dashed in 2001 when he was arrested in Tokyo.
According to some reports, Kim Jong-il was wary of his son’s westernised lifestyle even when he was working in the regime. In a letter to the editor of Tokyo Shimbun , Kim Jong-nam admitted that his father was “suspicious” of his views. “After I went back to North Korea following my education in Switzerland, I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and market-opening, and was eventually viewed with suspicion,” he wrote. Abroad, he lived a flamboyant life, loved gambling and travelling, occasionally making statements on the North Korean regime being led by his half-brother Kim Jong-un, who rose to power when he was in exile. He was spotted in several big cities in East Asia as well as in Western Europe.
His assassination is shrouded in mystery. The use of chemical weapons in the killing strengthens the theory that the hit was ordered by his half-brother. Kim Jong-nam had earlier ruled himself out of the game of thrones in Pyongyang, but it’s not a secret that the brothers hardly got along. A North Korean agent arrested in South Korea had told his interrogators that he had been tasked with killing Kim Jong-nam in July 2010, months before Kim Jong-un was officially declared the successor of their ailing father. In October that year, a day before Kim Jong-un debuted as the country’s successor, Kim Jong-nam told Asahi TV, a Japanese news network, that he was “personally against the third generation succession,” but would be happy to help. It seems his brother didn’t want that help.
The use of VX agent at a crowded international airport in the heart of Asia raises several questions. If the hit was a Pyongyang job, as the Malaysian investigators suggest, North Korea may be sending a message to its rivals. For years, Pyongyang conducted nuclear and missile tests in defiance of sanctions. Now, it appears to be drawing the world’s attention to its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, a new challenge for those powers which have long wanted to take the fight to this reclusive country.