Inside Kim Jong-nam’s Relationship with the West
The murder of Kim Jong-nam (pictured) shocked the world in 2017. An image that appeared in FRONTLINE's "North Korea's Deadly Dictator." (A still from "North Korea's Deadly Dictator")
It was the stuff of spy movies: In February of 2017, Kim Jong-un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was ambushed in a Malaysian airport by two women who smeared his mouth with VX nerve agent — a lethal chemical weapon 10 times more powerful than sarin. Kim died en route to the hospital. In the documentary North Korea’s Deadly Dictator, FRONTLINE examined claims that Kim Jong-un and his intelligence services orchestrated the hit.
Now, the story has taken another turn. Citing an anonymous source, the Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that Kim had served as a CIA source, and had met with an agency contact in Malaysia the same month he was murdered. In a new book, the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield makes a similar claim that Kim served as a CIA informant, also citing an anonymous source
It wouldn’t have been the first time Kim Jong-nam went against his dictator brother or engaged with the West. In the below excerpt from North Korea’s Deadly Dictator, FRONTLINE chronicled a series of moves by Kim that may have caused his country’s secretive regime to view him as a threat — and explored why foreign intelligence services may have seen him as a valuable recruit.
As the film details, Kim was the oldest son of dictator Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea for 17 years. After returning to the country in 1988 following his time at boarding schools in Moscow and then Geneva, analysts believe Kim was being groomed for leadership. Following disagreements with his father, however, he moved to neighboring China. By the late 1990s, he appeared to be living the life of an international playboy. And by 2007, he was a wealthy wheeler-dealer believed to be playing a key role in illicit initiatives that helped finance his father’s regime.
Yet when Kim Jong-il suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008 and had to choose a successor from among his children, Kim was seen by many as too Westernized. Instead, Kim Jong-un, still in his twenties, was anointed. His older brother wasn’t pleased.
As the above excerpt from the film shows, between 2010 and 2012, he exchanged almost 150 emails with Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi. In them, he criticized the decision to transfer power to a third generation of the Kim family, his half brother’s lack of experience, and how North Korea was being run.
When Gomi published the emails less than a month after Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011, it was a rare and stunning public criticism of the new North Korean leader. Kim began keeping a lower profile. FRONTLINE reported shortly before his death that Kim told his friends that he wanted to move to Europe and change his citizenship ─ in essence, defecting to the West.
“Three or four days before he died, he texted me a message saying, I’ll see you in Geneva, I’ll be back in three days,” his friend Mischa Aznavour told FRONTLINE.
The move and the defection could have posed a major threat to Kim Jong-un’s regime.
“From foreign intelligence services’ perspective, this is somebody that you want to get to know,” Sue Mi Terry, Senior Korea Analyst at the CIA from 2001-08, told FRONTLINE. “So I’m sure CIA would have tried very hard to recruit him. Ultimately, I think Kim Jong-un was afraid that should hostile powers like United States or maybe even China one day want to have a change in regime, that they could put Kim Jong-nam as head of that new leadership in North Korea because, of course, Kim Jong-nam has legitimacy.”
The regime has denied involvement in Kim Jong-nam’s murder. For more on his life — and what his assassination says about Kim Jong-un’s regime — watch North Korea’s Deadly Dictator in full.