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The assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother keeps getting weirder

North Korea denied responsibility for the murder of Kim Jong Nam. Here’s what we know.

Kim Jong Nam walking among journalists at Beijing’s international airport in 2007.
Kim Jong-Nam in 2007 upon his arrival at Beijing's international airport.

Ten days after Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was killed at a Malaysian airport, we still don’t know who murdered him — or why.

Malaysian investigators are pointing fingers at North Korea and at Kim Jong Un himself for organizing the murder, which was reportedly carried out by two women recruited as assassins who attacked Kim Jong Nam with a fast-acting poison. The case took an even more ominous turn Friday when Malaysian police said the assassins killed Kim by rubbing his face with a lethal nerve agent, VX, that is formally classified as a chemical weapon.

North Korea has denied involvement and said responsibility for Kim’s death lies with Malaysia because he died there. South Korea’s acting president called the killing “an intolerable crime against humanity and terrorist act.”

The public killing has become a real-life international crime drama and another example of North Korea’s bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Kim’s death has already prompted diplomatic and political shifts in Asia, and there could be bigger changes when the culprit is finally identified.

But first, here’s what we know about Kim Jong Nam’s death.

What we know

  • On the morning of February 13, Kim Jong Nam, 45, arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport to catch a flight to his home in Macau.
  • As Kim waited to check in, two women approached him and rubbed the VX nerve agent in his face. CCTV footage released by the airport purportedly shows the attack. The women immediately washed their hands and fled.
  • Kim died on the way to the hospital minutes after the attack with the nerve agent, which is tasteless, odorless, and kills by causing muscle spasms that ultimately prevent a victim from breathing.
  • Malaysian investigators have said that the two women were trained by four North Korean operatives who fled back to their country the day of the attack.
  • A senior North Korean Embassy official and three other people still in Malaysia are wanted by investigators for questioning. The official, Hyon Kwang Song, is the second secretary to the embassy and may have been in the airport at the time of the murder. But Hyon can refuse questioning because of embassy immunity privileges.
  • North Korea has denied responsibility but did not name Kim Jong Nam specifically in its statement. Pyongyang’s state-run news agency KCNA blamed Malaysia in a report on February 23, saying, “The biggest responsibility for his death rests with the government of Malaysia as the citizen of the DPRK died in its land.”
  • The two accused women currently being held in Malaysia are Doan Thi Huong, a 28-year-old Vietnamese woman, and Siti Aisyah, a 25-year-old Indonesian woman.
  • Malaysian police said that someone tried to break into the morgue where Kim’s body was being held, so police have ramped up security, according to USA Today.

That's it, for now. Other key questions about the case remain unanswered. Here are the biggest ones.

Was China involved?

Beijing hasn’t yet commented publicly on the death, but experts have described a sense of shock inside the Chinese government, as reported by the Washington Post. Kim’s death is seen as a reminder of North Korea’s unpredictability and China’s inability to control its neighboring country and its mercurial leader.

China is one of North Korea’s few diplomatic backers, but following Pyongyang’s recent missile test and Kim Jong Nam’s death, the relationship has been on the rocks.

China has been seen as a protector of Kim — he lived in Beijing and Macau for more than a decade and received protection from Chinese security services and occasional financial assistance, according to CNN.

Experts speculate that China protected Kim because of his close relationship with his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. Jang was China’s most important link to North Korea’s leadership and the second most powerful man in North Korea until Kim Jong Un ordered his execution in 2013. Before his death, Jang supported Kim financially, and the two maintained a good relationship. China may have viewed Kim as an ally in Pyongyang.

Kim did not have much political power and was ostracized from his family, so China most likely wasn’t using him to influence North Korean policy directly. Still, his murder is a slap in the face to China because Beijing was so publicly close to him.

Following North Korea’s missile test and Kim’s death, China said it would ban coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year, in a rare move to pressure its dangerous neighbor. This move would hurt North Korea economically by cutting off a major financial lifeline — coal is North Korea’s largest export item. This may be China’s signal of disapproval of Kim’s killing.

Why would North Korea want Kim Jong Nam dead?

It all comes down to Kim Jong Un. The current North Korean dictator is known for his brutality and ruthlessness, eliminating anyone who may threaten his power and regime control, including his uncle Jang.

Although Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of former supreme leader Kim Jong Il, was not politically active in Pyongyang and actually never met his half-brother, Kim Jong Un still may have seen him as a threat.

Because of Kim Jong Nam’s close ties with China, some experts believe Kim Jong Un may have been concerned that China would use Kim Jong Nam to replace him. Others point to a tense sibling rivalry in which Kim Jong Nam often publicly criticized his half-brother and probably angered him.

This apparently wouldn’t be the first time North Korea attempted to murder Kim Jong Nam. There have been at least two previous attempts that we know of, in 2010 and 2012. The first attempt became public when a North Korean agent confessed to attempting to stage Kim Jong Nam’s death by bribing a taxi driver to run over Kim, according to South Korean investigators and reported by the New York Times.

Not much is known about the second attempt, which was discussed in a closed-door briefing with South Korean security officials and reported by the Times. Kim Jong Nam also allegedly wrote a letter in 2012 begging his brother to spare his and his family’s lives.

How will this impact Malaysia and North Korea’s relatively friendly relationship?

Malaysia and North Korea have enjoyed a relatively friendly relationship, primarily around economic interactions. There has been some bilateral trade between the two, and citizens from both countries are allowed to travel to the other without visas in an effort to develop business ties. According to Agence France-Presse, up to 1,000 North Koreans currently work in Malaysia.

But as Malaysian investigators continue to probe into Kim Jong Nam’s death, the relationship between the two countries may collapse.

In a statement attributed to the North Korean Jurists Committee, North Korea said that the greatest share of responsibility for Kim’s death “rests with the government of Malaysia” because he died there. The statement also said the Malaysian investigation is “full of loopholes and contradictions” and that investigators “intended to frame us.”

Malaysia’s ambassador to North Korea returned to Malaysia on February 19, suggesting Kim Jong Nam’s death may have destructive consequences on the relationship.

That means the impact of the murder will extend far beyond the fate of one man. North Korea relies on China and Malaysia. If it organized the killing, it may lose both.

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