An anonymous “person knowledgeable about the matter” told the Wall Street Journal in a report published Monday that Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s late older brother, was a CIA informant before his 2017 assassination.
Two women killed the elder Kim in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Airport using VX nerve agent, a weapon of mass destruction, in February of that year. Investigators widely believe the North Korean communist regime is responsible for the killing. Malaysia set both women free after serving short sentences, as they claimed they did not know they were committing homicide and instead were told they were participating in a prank television show.
The Wall Street Journal‘s source told the publication that there was a “nexus” between the CIA and Kim Jong-nam and that he likely also aided Chinese and other foreign intelligence agencies. More details about that relationship will reportedly appear in a book by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield, scheduled for publication Tuesday according to Reuters, which emphasized that it could not independently corroborate the report.
“The book says that security camera footage from Kim Jong Nam’s last trip to Malaysia showed him in a hotel elevator with an Asian-looking man who was reported to be a U.S. intelligence agent,” Reuter noted. “It said his backpack contained $120,000 in cash, which could have been payment for intelligence-related activities, or earnings from his casino businesses.”
Some questioned the claim in the Wall Street Journal report, stating that it is not clear what valuable information the long-exiled Kim Jong-nam would have to provide the CIA or any other intelligence agency. Kim Jong-nam was dictator Kim Jong-il’s oldest son and, as such, long believed to be prepared to succeed his father. In 2001, however, he was caught attempting to illegally enter Tokyo Disneyland, causing tremendous embarrassment to his family. He spent most of the rest of his life in southeast Asia and Macau, specifically, where he was traveling to the day he was assassinated. Following his exit from North Korea, which appeared to be exile, Kim Jong-un took power after the death of their father, while his brother cultivated a relationship with China.
Kim Jong-nam was publicly critical of the Kim family political cult and called himself a “totally capitalist kid,” once lamenting, “I guess my father didn’t expect anything from me.”
In emails to a Japanese journalist obtained by North Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper in 2012, Kim suggested that the regime would collapse under his younger brother, who he said “resembles my grandfather,” North Korean dictator and founder Kim Il-sung.
“I’m concerned how Jong-un, who merely resembles my grandfather [former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung], will be able to satisfy the needs of North Koreans,” he wrote. “Kim Jong-un is still just a nominal figure and the members of the power elite will be the ones in actual power.”
Despite his public distaste for communism, he appeared to have developed such a close relationship with China that some world intelligence officials believed China may have been preparing him to take over from Kim Jong-un if the latter ever broke China’s decades-long stranglehold over North Korea’s foreign policy.
The backdrop to Kim Jong-nam’s assassination was a growing rift between China and North Korea. The Chinese had agreed to support more pressure on North Korea at the U.N. Security Council. The month of Kim Jong-nam’s death, North Korea’s state media taunted China as a “vassal state” of America’s, a genre of criticism it kept up for most of the year. Killing one of China’s closest North Korean allies, many suggested at the time, was a way for Kim Jong-un to assert himself against the increasingly domineering Xi Jinping, head of China’s Communist Party.
Most observers, including the South Korean government, agree that Kim Jong-un likely ordered his brother’s assassination. Two women attacked Kim at Kuala Lumpur airport with a cloth carrying VX nerve agent, which kills in minutes. Medical aid did not reach Kim in time. The United Nations classifies VX as a “weapon of mass destruction,” making its use, especially on foreign soil, a severe violation of international law.
The North Korean regime denied any involvement in the attack and instead impugned the trustworthiness of the Malaysian government. Pyongyang went as far as to claim that the man killed was not Kim Jong-nam, but a person named “Kim Chol” with no ties to the North Korean government. “Kim Chol” was the name on Kim Jong-nam’s travel documents when he was killed.
Malaysia’s prime minister at the time, Najib Razak, called North Korea “diplomatically rude” for the “uncalled for” attack on the competence of Malaysia’s police force.
Malaysian authorities have not successfully linked the two women involved in the killing with any North Korean government official. The women –Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia – said that men claiming to be television producers told them to stick the cloth in Kim’s face as a joke for a prank television show and that they were not aware of Kim’s identity.
Police said one of the women began vomiting immediately after the attack, suggesting exposure, which could serve to suggest that she did not know she was handling a deadly poison before becoming sick.
Doan was sentenced to three years and four months in prison after having served two years. She was released in May after completing the sentence. Charges against Aisyah were dropped after the Indonesian government urged Malaysia to spare her a sentence.
The North Korean government did not take up the responsibility typical of states in cases of their citizens’ deaths abroad of lobbying Malaysia for a full and thorough investigation into Kim’s assassination.
“In Kim Jong Nam’s case, North Korea did not exercise the right for diplomatic protection — rather, it was the one who killed him. … Nobody tried to fight for Kim Jong-nam’s rights,” Shin Beom-cheol, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told the Agence France-Presse in April.