On February 13, Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was murdered by a group of poison-wielding assassins at Kuala Lumpur airport. Everything about the killing, from one of the assassins wearing a “LOL”-emblazoned shirt, to the suspected reasoning behind the attack itself, seems morbidly cartoonish. Like much of the news that ekes its way out of the totalitarian state, the murder is equal parts scary, sad, and vaguely comical.
Though no motive has been identified by authorities in Malaysia, South Korean spies believe Kim Jong-nam's killing was a political assassination planned by his brother — who he reportedly never met — the “supreme leader” of North Korea.
Kim Jong-un’s rule over North Korea has been largely uncontested, but his older brother Kim Jong-nam was still a possible threat if a plan to remove Kim Jong-un from power ever arose. That threat seems to derive at least partially from a long-standing myth about bloodlines, power, and a magical mountain.
Kim Jong-un’s fears might have their roots in Mount Paektu, a volcano on the border of North Korea and China that plays a crucial role in Korean mythology. Paektu is said to be the birthplace of Dangun, the legendary founder of Korea’s first kingdom. In addition, Kim Il-sung — the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-nam — supposedly saved the Korean Peninsula with “daring guerrilla raids” against the Japanese launched from the base of the mountain. The importance of Paektu has led to its place in North Korean culture as a catch-all symbol of prosperity. In true North Korean fashion, to ensure the Kims’ place in the royal line, the country says that Un’s father, Kim Jong-il was born on Paektu (Soviet records actually show that he was born in the USSR). Since both brothers benefited from the legend of the volcano, crafted to indicate that only the Kims could rule North Korea, taking out Kim Jong-nam cemented Kim Jong-un’s place in power. As the AP writes:
Because the Kim brothers shared the same exalted and heroic lineage - the “blood of Mount Paektu” - the argument goes, no matter how low profile he was, Kim Jong-nam would always pose a danger. As long as he lived he could share, if indirectly and probably unwillingly, in the avalanche of propaganda associated with the sacred volcano.
Kim Jong-un has another older brother, Kim Jong-chul, who’s been described as “a huge fan of rock guitarist Eric Clapton.” Apparently Kim Jong-chul is not considered to be a threat to Kim Jong-un’s power. According to the AP, “A former sushi chef of Kim Jong-il said the late leader derided him as ‘girlish,’” thus, we assume, somehow quashing any potential challenge to the supreme leader.
Some other interesting points about this assassination:
- North Korean officials refuse to accept assassination as a possibility, instead claiming that Malaysian authorities told them Kim Jong-nam died of a heart attack. They’re calling for the immediate release of his body, saying an autopsy is being forced on them. North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia said authorities in Kuala Lumpur are, “colluding with outside forces who are interested in damaging the image of our republic.” Probably not any cause for suspicion at all.
- One of the women accused of the attack who is now in custody, “thought she was taking part in TV prank,” according to The Guardian. Siti Aisyah believed she was actually on a comedy show, rather than committing murder, says the Indonesian national police chief, citing information from Malaysian authorities.
- The second female suspect — the one wearing the “LOL” T-shirt — had been camped out at a hotel near the airport, booked into the cheapest room. Apparently she had cut her hair and was carrying around a “wad of cash,” according to a receptionist at the hotel who spoke to Reuters.
- Kim Jong-nam has a son, Kim Han-sol, who has been outspoken about Kim Jong-un publicly, calling the dictator… a “dictator” in an interview with Elisabeth Rehn, a former UN under secretary general.