In May 2001, a man was rounded up after trying to smuggle himself into Narita International Airport in Tokyo, alongside his son and two women, using fake Dominican Republic passports.
The incident introduced Kim Jong-nam, the slain older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, to the outside world. But his yearning 16 years ago to visit Tokyo Disneyland blew his chances to succeed in the reclusive dynasty, incurring the wrath of his father and longtime strongman Kim Jong-il.
Born in 1971 to Kim Jong-il and Sung Hae-rim, a married actress with whom the late leader had an affair, Kim Jong-nam spent his childhood at international schools in Moscow and Geneva, like his brothers and sisters. After his return home, he quickly climbed the regime’s ladder, securing four-star general status in 1995 and chairing a state computer committee in charge of the country’s information technology policy in 1998.
Yet his political fate began to wane in the late 1990s after his aunt, Sung Hae-rang, took asylum in the US, following her son Lee Han-yong, who defected to South Korea via Switzerland in 1982 and was shot to death by North Korean agents in 1997. Kim Jong-nam’s parents, meanwhile, had also become estranged, as the leader had started seeing Ko Yong-hui, Kim Jong-un’s mother.
Kim Jong-nam had since lived a life in exile, transforming himself into a vocal regime critic until allegedly being slain with poison by North Korean operatives Monday in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite his fall from grace, he was believed to be managing his father’s slush funds in China, Macau and other Southeast Asian countries where he also enjoyed casinos, top hotel bars and other extravagances.
After the despot fell ill and his much younger half-brother geared up to take over, however, he raised his voice against a “third dynastic succession” during interviews with Japanese media. In 2011, he questioned the newly minted heir’s capabilities, saying, “In that young kid’s face, I can’t read at all any signs of his sense of duty, prudence and agony over the nation’s future.”
He faced an endless series of death threats, including a botched attempt in 2010 in Beijing by an agent disguised as a defector who testified to South Korean authorities that the order came from above.
Safety concerns may well have affected his absence at his father’s funeral in December 2011, as well as his decision to maintain a low profile, especially since the 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, his once-formidable uncle and patron.
Kim was last spotted in France last September and in 2013. His son Han-sol was studying at the Sciences Po university in Paris. Han-sol did a rare interview with a Finnish broadcaster in 2012, during which he called his uncle a “dictator.”
Yoji Komi, an editor at the Tokyo Shimbun who built personal ties with him via emails and meetings, wrote Wednesday that though Kim refrained from political remarks due to safety concerns about his son, he had told acquaintances he was going to start speaking out against the regime again once he graduates from college.