SEOUL // North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s brother has been assassinated in Malaysia.
Kim Jong-nam, 45, is thought to have been attacked by two female North Korean agents using poisoned needles while he was waiting at Kuala Lumpur airport for a flight to Macau.
Jong-nam, Mr Kim’s elder half-brother, went to the airport clinic complaining that he had been sprayed with liquid and was in pain. He died on the way to Putrajaya Hospital.
The two assassins, agents of the North’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, carried out the attack on Monday by taking advantage of a security loophole between Jong-nam’s bodyguards and Malaysian police at the airport. They then hailed a taxi and escaped.
The assassination was the highest-profile death under the Kim Jong-un regime since the execution of the leader’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in December 2013.
Mr Kim has staged a series of executions. He has been trying to strengthen his grip on power in the face of growing international pressure over his country’s nuclear and missile programmes. The latest launch on Sunday of a new intermediate-range missile brought UN Security Council condemnation and vows of a strong response from US president Donald Trump.
Jong-nam, who used to be called the “Little General” and was once heir-apparent to his father Kim Jong-il, fell from grace in 2001 after a spectacular blunder.
He was embarrassingly detained at a Tokyo airport while trying to enter Japan to visit Disneyland on a false Dominican Republic passport, accompanied by two women and a child.
He and his family afterwards lived in virtual exile in Macau, Singapore and China.
Born from his father’s relationship with the actress Sung Hae-rim, Jong-nam was a computer enthusiast, a fluent Japanese speaker and a student in both Russia and Switzerland.
He lived in Pyongyang after finishing his overseas studies and was put in charge of overseeing North Korea’s information technology policy.
But the chubby eldest son of the supreme leader was already viewed as a political lightweight even before he fell out of favour.
Jong-Nam was an advocate of reform in the North, and once told a Japanese newspaper that he opposed his country’s dynastic power transfers.
He was close to his uncle Jang Song-thaek, once the North’s unofficial number two and political mentor of the current leader.
Jong-nam has been targeted in the past. In October 2012 South Korean prosecutors said a North Korean detained as a spy had admitted involvement in a plot to stage a hit-and-run car accident in China in 2010. Jong-nam was the intended victim.
In 2014, he had financial problems and was thrown out of a luxury hotel in Macau after running up a $15,000 debt.
The same year he was seen at an Italian restaurant run by a Japanese businessman in Jakarta, and shuttled back and forth between Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and France.
South Korea warned last year of possible North Korean assassination attempts in its territory. There were previous attempts to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the North’s chief ideologue and former tutor to Kim Jong-il, who defected to the South in 1997 and died of natural causes in 2010.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press