Kim Jong Nam was Kim Jong Il’s oldest son and Kim Jong Un’s older brother. He was poisoned and died in an airport in Malaysia in February 2017. He was believed at one time to be the next in line to succeed Kim Jong Il as the leader of North Korea until he fell out of favor after attempting to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He was only 45 when he died and had been living outside of North Korea for about 15 years. Here is what you need to know about Kim Jong Nam.
1. Kim Jong Nam Was Poisoned with a Nerve Agent at a Malaysia Airport
On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam was killed after two women poisoned him with a VX nerve agent. You can see the tragic video that shows the moment he was poisoned and how he tried to get help at a medical center above. Although most sources do report it was a VX nerve agent that killed him, two chemical weapons experts said that Jong Nam’s reactions weren’t quite consistent with VX, since he was able to walk to a medical station and there were no other injuries.
Kim was attacked around 9 a.m. on February 13 near the self check-in kiosk at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, while returning to Macau. Kim told an airport receptionist that someone had grabbed him from behind, splashing liquid on his face, and a woman covered his face with a cloth that was laced with a liquid. He was intubated and given medication, but he died while in transit to a nearby hospital.
He had been traveling under the pseudonym Kim Choi in an attempt to hide his identity. But he had often posted on Facebook under that name and used it for email communications.
The next day, Malaysian police arrested Đoàn Thị Hương, a 28-year-old Vietnamese woman who was identified through CCTV footage. Two days later, Siti Aisyah, a 25-year-old Indonesian woman, was arrested. Hương said that four men told her to spray the liquid onto Kim while Aisyah covered his face with a handkerchief. She said they were told it was a prank. However, Malaysian police later determined that they believed the two women knew the substance was poisonous and had rehearsed the actions together on multiple occasions. They were recruited separately, police said. The women’s defense attorneys still dispute this finding, insisting they thought it was a prank for TV.
On March 16, 2017, Interpol issued a notice for four North Koreans they believed were involved in the murder, but three were released after being cleared of wrongdoing. The men that the women claim recruited them have not been charged and are not in custody.
The North Korea government rejected all findings and said the claim about the VX nerve agent was absurd, and the cause of death was a heart attack.
The two women’s murder trial is still ongoing.
2. Before He Was Poisoned, He Was in Hiding & Openly Critical of North Korea
Kim Jong-Nam was reportedly in hiding before he was poisoned, and had survived several other attempts on his life. In 2016, months before he died, he told a driver that he was worried his life was in danger. In 2010, a North Korean agent gave cash to a taxi driver to stage an accident with Jong Nam, but Jong Nam never arrived, GQ reported. In 2012 another attempt was made on his life, and he wrote to Jong Un: “Please withdraw the order to punish me and my family. We have nowhere to hide. The only way to escape is to choose suicide.”
Prior to this, he had been openly critical of North Korea. In 2011, for example, after Kim Jong Un took his father’s place leading the country, Kim Jong Nam sent an email to a Japanese journalist calling his brother a “joke to the outside world” and suggesting the regime might not last long, GQ reported.
He once said he did not believe in third-generation succession, but hoped his brother would do his best for North Korea. In 2012 he told a reporter with Chosun: “Without reforms, North Korea will collapse, and when such changes take place, the regime will collapse. I think we will see valuable time lost as the regime sits idle fretting over whether it should pursue reforms or stick to the present political structure.”
3. He Went Into Exile After Visiting Tokyo Disneyland & Advocating for Reform
At one point, Kim Jong-Nam was expected to be the next in line to lead North Korea. His father had told him that he would be the one to take his place when he grew up, GQ reported. In 1998, he was appointed to a senior position in North Korea that would secure that succession. He accompanied his father to Shanghai in 2001 as part of his leadership role.
But in May 2001, he was arrested in Japan and found to be traveling with a forged passport under the alias Pang Xiong. He was detained and deported to China. He said he had been planning to visit Tokyo Disneyland. His father canceled a trip to China with his son out of embarrassment; news stories either suggested that Jong-Nam was an immature heir or focused on the Louis Vuitton bags his female companions had, suggesting he was a symbol of extravagant living, GQ reported. His temporary exile eventually turned permanent.
4. He Spent His Childhood Out of the Public Eye, Educated in Russia and Switzerland
Kim Jong-Nam spent much of his childhood out of the public eye. He was born on May 10, 1971 in Pyongyan to Kim Jong Il and Song Hye-rim. However, it is reported that Kim Jong Il wanted to keep his affair with Song a secret because his father didn’t approve. So at first, Kim Jong-Nam was tutored at home by Song’s older sister.
When Kim Jong Nam was just three, his mother had a nervous breakdown and had to be cared for in Moscow, Esquire reported. He joined her at the age of eight, but didn’t handle the transition well because he didn’t want to use public toilets. So he was sent back to Pyongyang to live with his aunt.
As a child, he attended international schools in Russia and Switzerland, before finally returning to North Korea in 1988.
According to a book titled “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader,” Kim Jong-Nam had a personality much like his dad’s. He was sensitive, gifted in arts, but also hot-tempered, his aunt said. He was also interested in writing screenplays and short films. But he wasn’t very interested in succeeding his dad as leader of North Korea, his aunt said.
Kim Jong Nam claimed that he and Kim Jong Un never actually met, since they were separated by about 12 years and grew up in separate locations.
5. He Reportedly Had Two Wives, a Mistress, & Multiple Children
Kim Jong Nam was believed to have two wives and at least one mistress, and as many as six children. Shin Jong-hui, his first wife, lived in Beijing. His second wife, Lee Hye-kyong (sometimes spelled Ri Hye), lived in Macau with his son, Han-sol, and daughter, Sol-hui. His mistress was believed to be So Yong-la, a flight attendant.
Some publications have listed additional children as a son, Kim Geum Sol, and a daughter, Kim Yi-soon. It’s not known if these names are accurate, however.
Kim Jong Nam’s son, Kim Han Sol, provided DNA that helped identify his father after the attack. Just a few days after his father was killed, he released a video saying that he was in hiding, Esquire reported. You can watch the video below:
Prior to his father’s death, Kim Han Sol had been in Macau with his mom and teenage sister, Sol Hui, who had just graduated from high school, Esquire reported. Kim Han Sol is in his early 20s and was educated abroad in France and speaks fluent English. In interviews, he speaks about peace and diplomacy. He once said his dream is to “go back and make things better, and make it easier for the people there (in North Korea.) I also dream of unification.” He’s the most outspoken of Kim Jong Nam’s children.