W hile his half-brother’s missile tests terrorised the world, Kim Jong-nam, once the heir to the DPRK leadership, met his end in an ambulance after coming into contact with what officials believe was a virulent poison at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Although police have detained three suspects, the hand behind the assassination remains unknown. Many, however, are crying fratricide.
Kim Jong-un had a motive for ordering the murder. Rejected by his father after causing embarrassment via a fake passport and a trip to Disneyland, Kim Jong-nam lived in exile as a critic of North Korea’s political system, turning his back on the dynastic, authoritarian rule that his half-brother embraced. A reasonable belief that his brother would cause embarrassment by defecting, or paranoia that he planned to challenge for the leadership, may have weighed on Kim Jong-un’s mind.
The US and South Korea see the murder as the latest in a series of executions and purges under Mr. Kim, who had his uncle killed in 2013. Some of these deaths have been similarly dramatic. Is this bloodlust a symptom of disunity within the Workers’ Party of Korea, or a demonstration of the chairman’s absolute authority?
For Tristan Webb, a senior analyst at NK PRO, a research organisation, the signs are that Mr. Kim’s rule is stable. “Institutional capabilities have recovered greatly from the disasters of the 1990s, and the DPRK is once again able to draw up and implement nationwide economic policies,” he says. “Its current five-year plan is its first in decades.”
Mr. Webb explained that “it is difficult to imagine any large plotting or independent power base capable of being developed” to challenge Mr. Kim’s rule. His formal installation as chairman (previously he was known as first secretary) at last year’s congress further displayed party unity.
As ever with the secretive rogue state, analysis is speculative, and Mr. Webb agreed that a palace coup is not inconceivable. What is certain is the chilling message this style of leadership sends to his adversaries at home and abroad.
As Dr. James Hoare, former British charge d'affaires in Pyongyang, told TWW: “Kim Jong-un has certainly shown himself determined to crush those who might oppose him.”