It sounds like something from a second-rate spy novel, or a B-grade gangster film.   But it’s not the stuff of fiction; it’s the story of family rivalry, money, political assassination and North Korea.  And it happened in Kuala Lumpur just hours ago.

Kim Jong-nam, half-brother to DPRK dictator Kim Jong-un, died at a hospital in the Malaysian capital, apparently after being poisoned by a pair of female North Korean operatives.  More from Reuters:

Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat said the cause of Kim’s death was not yet known, and that a post mortem would be carried out.

“So far there are no suspects, but we have started investigations and are looking at a few possibilities to get leads,” Fadzil told Reuters.

According to Fadzil, Kim had been planning to travel to Macau on Monday when he fell ill at the low-cost terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

“The deceased … felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind,” Fadzil said. “He felt dizzy, so he asked for help at the … counter of KLIA.”

Kim was taken to an airport clinic where he still felt unwell, and it was decided to take him to hospital. He died in the ambulance on the way to Putrajaya Hospital, Fadzil added.

South Korea’s TV Chosun, a cable-TV network, reported that Kim had been poisoned with a needle by two women believed to be North Korean operatives who fled in a taxi and were at large, citing multiple South Korean government sources.

Claims that Kim Jong-nam was poisoned could not be verified by Reuters.  A spokesman for the ROK foreign ministry declined comment on the matter and there was no immediate reaction from South Korean intelligence agencies.  

But the “hit”–if it can be confirmed–would hardly be surprising.  Since taking power after the death of his father in 2011, Kim Jong-un has ordered the execution of more than 40 high-ranking officials and family members, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was appointed to guide him through the transition process.  Some of the executions have been particularly brutal, even by Pyongyang’s standards.  Two officials were killed with anti-aircraft guns; another was murdered with a mortar.  

Despite this bloody history, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is puzzling.  He was something of a black sheep in North Korea’s ruling family.  The son of one of Kim Jong-il’s mistresses, Kim Jong-nam was only briefly viewed as a serious contender for power–and whatever chance he had vaporized in 2001, when he was detained in Japan, after trying to enter the country on a forged passport.  

Instead, Kim Jong-nam spent much of his time outside the DPRK, traveling to countries like Malaysia, which allows North Koreans to enter without a visa.  He also made periodic excursions to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau, home to some of the banks which handle the money of the DPRK’s ruling elites.  Kim Jong-nam was conspicuously absent from his father’s funeral six years ago, and said publicly that he opposed “third generation succession,” an obvious reference to his half-brother, the latest member of the Kim dynasty to lead North Korea’s oppressive, communist government.  

Still, Kim Jong-nam was more of an embarrassment or public relations problem than a threat to North Korean leadership.  So, why go to the effort of dispatching an assassination team to Malaysia to bump off the ‘ner-do-well half brother?  Some analysts believe that Kim Jong-un and
“regime loyalists” had him marked for death long ago.  But the real answer may lie in Kim Jong-nam’s lifestyle, and how that presented a potential threat to the regime.  

By North Korean standards, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother lived a luxurious lifestyle, with the freedom to travel wherever he chose.  And someone had to pick up the tab.  That “someone” was the North Korean treasury, run by the current dictator.  There are reports that Kim Jong-nam’s “allowance” was terminated in 2012, for criticizing its succession policy.  He was reportedly kicked out of a luxury hotel in Moscow (another favorite haunt) after running up a $15,000 bill he was unable to pay.  Yet, he still lived a nomadic existence, and at least some of his travel and living expenses were still being paid.  

Yet, it is also noteworthy that the hit occurred in the economy terminal of the Kuala Lumpur airport, suggesting that Kim Jong-nam wasn’t enjoying the jet set style he once lived.  And that raises an obvious question: if Kim Jong-il’s older son was experiencing cash flow problems, was he exploring a potential solution to those ills, namely a defection?  Traditionally, South Korea has payed handsomely for high-ranking political and military defectors from the North.  Securing the defection of a member of the ruling family would be an enormous propaganda victory for Seoul–and provide ample reason for Kim Jong-un to dispatch his assassins.  

And, for a man long out of favor in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-nam might have something else of value: details on the Kim family fortune and how North Korea’s ruling establishment hides their wealth.  Such information would be extremely helpful in future sanctions against the DPRK; if senior political officials and military officers couldn’t access their money, it would weaken Kim Jong-un’s hold on power.  A recent diplomatic defector–the former number two diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London–told ROK debriefers that Kim Jong-un’s grip is slipping, although there is little outward evidence to support that claim.  

Was Kim Jong-nam about to flee to South Korea or the west?  We may never know.  Available evidence suggests that any contacts between Kim Jong-nam and foreign intelligence services was tentative–if they existed at all.  He was apparently traveling alone, with no handlers or protection, allowing DPRK operatives to get close enough to administer a lethal dose of poison.  

This much we know: Kim Jong-nam did enough to get himself killed, simply by being a perennial embarrassment to Pyongyang, or engaging in activities deemed far more dangerous by his younger brother.  And, an accurate accounting of  those “activities”–if it ever comes–may provide a much better picture of North Korea’s newest tyrant and what’s really going on inside the hermit kingdom. 
Updated media coverage has offered a few more details, but those “revelations” must be taken with a large grain of salt.  Outlets in South Korea suggest that Kim Jong-un signed off on his half-brother’s assassination back in 2011, shortly after taking power.  That raises obvious questions as to why the hit took so long.  True, Kim Jong-nam traveled a lot, but his whereabouts weren’t exactly a state secret.  If nothing else, North Korean operatives only had to trail Japanese journalists to find Kim Jong-nam; reporters from various publications in Japan had no trouble locating Kim Jong-il’s oldest son, yet the assassination didn’t occur until this week.  

Other reporting suggests that DPRK operatives “approached” Kim Jong-nam a few days before the hit and invited him to return to Pyongyang, an invitation he declined.  Given the number of high-ranking officials executed in recent years, Kim Jong-nam decided to take his chances outside North Korea.  His refusal set in motion the long-ordered assassination plot.  

One final note: in an interview with a Japanese reporter, Kim Jong-nam said he made his living from “investments.”  That would affirm that he had access to at least a portion of the Kim family fortune, and had details on how much money there is, where it’s invested and how it’s spent.  That’s the kind of information that Kim Jong-nam might have offered to ROK intelligence or a western service, in exchange for asylum, protection and a sizable financial bounty.  Obviously, there’s no evidence of such contacts (at least not publicly), but something happened in recent weeks that made Kim Jong-nam’s elimination a priority.  We still believe the answer lies in his financial dealings and the billions plundered by the Kim family.