Is Death of Kim Jong Nam the Beginning of the End for North Korea?

Kim Jong Un is feeling the noose slip around his neck

People watch a television showing news reports of Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, at a railway station in Seoul on February 14, 2017. Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has been assassinated in Malaysia, South Korean media reported on February 14. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je

People watch a television showing news reports of Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, at a railway station in Seoul on February 14, 2017. Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has been assassinated in Malaysia. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend saw wall-to-wall coverage of North Korea’s missile testing. But today the most important news in years came out of the DPRK, and the Western media is largely silent. This speaks to just how poorly understood North Korea remains, despite both increasing international scrutiny and an ever-growing body of information escaping from the country.

Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Nam, was found dead in Malaysia, reportedly murdered. There is perhaps no greater sign possible of the instability of the current DPRK regime. In fact, it was Jong Nam who was first groomed to succeed the Dear Leader. By all accounts, he would have tried to usher in enormous liberalization for North Korea—which is precisely why he was passed over.

The North Korea leadership bases its claims to authority on the “Mt. Paektu bloodline.” Mt. Paektu holds a mystical place of honor in the North Korean mythology, and was supposedly the location of the secret base camp for North Korea’s founder, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. During the pre-World War II colonial period, Kim Il Sung was claimed to have led a band of guerrillas during the “years of anti-Japanese struggle.” It was there that Kim Jong Il is also (falsely) alleged to have been born.

North Korea is governed by a sort of “ten commandments,” the last of which promises that “the great revolutionary accomplishments begun by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung shall be inherited and perfected by generation upon generation until the end.” Meaning, only a direct descendent of General Kim Il Sung is in a position to lead the DPRK—and those were few and far between.

Jong Nam’s mother, Song Hye Rim, was Kim Jong Il’s first wife (or “wife”; it’s unclear as to the precise legal status between the two). Hye Rim had been married previously and had another child. For these and several other reasons, Jong Nam and his mother had to live in complete secrecy in North Korea. A few years later, sick of not having a grandchild, Kim Il Sung forced Kim Jong Il to get married to a woman of the Great Leader’s choosing. It was only after living the bigamist life for several years that he revealed to his father that he had already had a son.

Growing up, Jong Nam was given everything he desired. As a young child, he once asked to meet a South Korean TV star for his birthday. Kim Jong Il managed to find a farmer who resembled him and trained the man to try and pass as the celebrity—a pantomime young Jong Nam saw through immediately. It’s a great metaphor for North Korea as a whole. Few in the west realize how ineffective the DPRK’s internal deceptions often are. The people smile and nod—hostages one and all—but they increasingly remain unconvinced.

As an adult, Jong Nam published a book in Japan that was later translated into English (though almost impossible to find) entitled My Father Kim Jong-Il and I. The text is a series of interviews between Jong Nam and a Japanese reporter, explaining the Kim family relationship. During his father’s lifetime, Jong Nam urged more openness in the North Korea, whereas Kim Jong Il said that, “If you want openness, open a window.”

Under the ultranationalist Juche idea that reigns in the DPRK, Korean problems must be solved by Korean solutions. The liberalization that did wonders for China would therefore not be applicable to Korea. Jong Nam was also a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament—the precise opposite of Kim Jong Il’s songun (“military first”) ethos. He also considered himself an environmentalist. To advocate environmentalism in a nation that features a hydroelectric plant on its emblem is anathema, to put it mildly.

The nadir of the relationship between Jong Nam and his father came in 2001, when the former was arrested in Japan using a fake Dominican Republic passport under the name of “Pang Xiong” (Chinese for “fat bear”). Jong Nam was supposedly there to collect payment for an international weapons shipment, but told the press he wanted to take his family to see Disneyland—a statement they dutifully repeated with full credulity.

As a result of all this, Jong Nam was passed over for Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s third son by his third “wife”, Japanese-born Kim Young Hee. His second son, Kim Jong Chul, was deemed too much of a “sissy” for the he-man Dear Leader. Should anything happen to Kim Jong Un, however, there would be very few people who could take his place smoothly. It would probably be Jong Nam or no one else. The fact that someone saw the need to assassinate him means that Kim Jong Un—or someone close to him—is feeling the noose slip around his neck.

Michael Malice is the author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmalice.