SEOUL/KUALA LUMPUR – The U.S. government strongly believes that North Korean agents murdered the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Malaysia, a U.S. government source said on Tuesday.
American authorities have not yet determined exactly how Kim Jong Nam was killed, according to the source, who did not provide specific evidence to support the U.S. government’s view.
A South Korean government source also had said earlier that Kim Jong Nam had been murdered in Malaysia. He did not provide further details.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said it could not confirm the reports, and the country’s intelligence agency could not immediately be reached for comment.
In the United States, there was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Trump administration, which faces a stiff challenge from a defiant North Korea over its nuclear arms program and the test of a ballistic missile last weekend.
Kim Jong Nam was known to spend a significant amount of his time outside North Korea and had spoken out publicly against his family’s dynastic control of the isolated state.
In a statement, Malaysian police said the dead man, aged 46, held a passport under the name Kim Chol.
Kim Jong Nam has been caught in the past using forged travel documents.
Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat said the cause of Kim’s death was not yet known, and that a postmortem would be carried out.
“So far there are no suspects, but we have started investigations and are looking at a few possibilities to get leads,” Fadzil told Reuters.
According to Fadzil, Kim had been planning to travel to Macau on Monday when he fell ill at the low-cost terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
“The deceased … felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind,” Fadzil said. “He felt dizzy, so he asked for help at the … counter of KLIA.”
Kim was taken to an airport clinic where he still felt unwell, and it was decided to take him to hospital. He died in the ambulance on the way to Putrajaya Hospital, Fadzil added.
The U.S. government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible that Kim Jong Nam had been poisoned. The U.S. source said it could not be ruled out that assassins used some kind of “poison pen” device.
South Korea’s TV Chosun, a cable-TV network, reported that Kim had been poisoned with a needle by two women believed to be North Korean operatives who fled in a taxi and were at large, citing multiple South Korean government sources.
Reuters could not independently confirm those details.
Malaysia is one of a dwindling number of countries that has close relations with North Korea, which is under tightening global sanctions over its nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches, the latest of which took place on Sunday.
Malaysians and North Koreans can visit each other’s country without visas.
A phone call to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur late on Tuesday went straight to an answering machine.
Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Un are both sons of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died in late 2011, but they had different mothers.
Kim Jong Nam, the elder of the two, did not attend his father’s funeral. His mother was an actress named Song Hye Rim, and Kim Jong Nam said his father kept his parents’ relationship a secret.
The portly and easygoing Kim Jong Nam was believed to be close to his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was North Korea’s second most powerful man before being executed on Kim Jong Un’s orders in 2013.
In an embarrassing 2001 incident, Kim Jong Nam was caught at an airport in Japan traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport, saying he had wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He was known to travel to Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Kim Jong Nam had occasionally been the subject of speculation that he could replace his younger half-brother, the country’s third-generation leader.
“Loyalists may have wanted to get rid of him,” he said.
Kim Jong Nam said several times over the years that he had no interest in leading his country.
“Personally, I am against third-generation succession,” he told Japan’s Asahi TV in 2010. “I hope my younger brother will do his best for the sake of North Koreans’ prosperous lives.”
His cousin, Lee Han-young, who defected to South Korea through Switzerland in 1982, was shot and killed by North Korean agents in Seoul in 1997, according to South Korea.
Kim Jong Nam reportedly told medical workers before he died en route to the hospital that he had been attacked with a chemical spray, a Malaysian official said Tuesday.
He was attacked Monday in the shopping concourse at the airport and had not gone through immigration yet for his flight to Macau, said the senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case involves sensitive diplomacy.
Kim Jong Nam was believed to have been living recently in Macau, Singapore and Malaysia.
Multiple South Korean media reports, citing unnamed sources, said Kim Jong Nam was killed at the airport by two women. TV Chosun, citing unidentified “multiple government sources,” said the women were believed to be North Korean agents. It said they fled in a taxi and were being sought by Malaysian police.
Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has executed or purged a slew of high-level government officials in what the South Korean government has described as a “reign of terror.” The most spectacular among them was the 2013 execution by anti-aircraft fire of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, once considered the country’s second most powerful man, for what the North alleged was treason.
South Korea’s government has said North Korea also executed a vice premier for education in 2016 for unspecified anti-revolutionary and factional acts, and a defense minister in 2015 for complaining and sleeping during a meeting.
North Korea also has a history of dispatching spies to kill high-level defectors critical of its system.
In 1997, a nephew of one of Kim Jong Il’s former wives was killed outside a Seoul apartment 15 years after she defected to South Korea. Officials never caught the assailants but believe they were North Korean agents.
In 2010, South Korea arrested what it called a pair of North Korean spies ordered to kill Hwang Jang Yop, a high-level defector who once mentored Kim Jong Il. North Korea denied the allegation.
Mark Tokola, vice president at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said it would be surprising if Kim Jong Nam was not killed on the orders of his brother, given that North Korean agents have reportedly tried to assassinate Kim Jong Nam in the past.
“It seems probable that the motivation for the murder was a continuing sense of paranoia on the part of Kim Jong Un, which may be a well-placed paranoia,” Tokola wrote in a commentary Tuesday. Although there was scant evidence that Kim Jong Nam was plotting against the North Korean leader, he provided an alternative for North Koreans who would want to depose his brother.
Tokola, who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said Kim Jong Nam has been fairly quiet in his exile, but was quoted in the Japanese media in 2010 as saying he opposed dynastic succession in North Korea.
About a year later in December 2011, his father died and Kim Jong Un took power.
South Korean media reports said Kim Jong Nam had traveled using a fake passport under the name of Kim Chol.
South Korea’s national news agency Yonhap quoted a source as saying agents of the North’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, carried out the assassination on Monday by taking advantage of a security loophole between Kim Jong Nam’s bodyguards and Malaysian police at the airport.
The 45-year-old was killed by two unidentified female agents using poisoned needles at the airport, according to South Korean broadcaster TV Chosun.
Cheong Seong-Jang, senior researcher at Seoul’s Sejong Institute think-tank, said Kim Jong Nam had been living in near-exile so it was unlikely that Kim Jong Un saw him as a potential competitor for power.
“But if Jong Nam committed an act to damage Jong Un’s authority, I think it’s possible that the Reconnaissance General Bureau may have directly conducted the assassination under the orders of Jong Un since it has been in charge of closely watching Jong Nam.”
Jong-Nam has been targeted in the past.
In October 2012 South Korean prosecutors said a North Korean detained as a spy had admitted involvement in a plot to stage a hit-and-run car accident in China in 2010 targeting him.
In 2014, Kim Jong Nam was reported to be in Indonesia — sighted at an Italian restaurant in Jakarta — and was said to be shuttling back and forth between Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and France.
In 2012, a Moscow newspaper reported that Kim Jong Nam was having financial problems after being cut off by the Stalinist state for doubting its succession policy.
The Argumenty i Fakty weekly said he was kicked out of a luxury hotel in Macau over a $15,000 debt.
Last year South Korea warned of possible North Korean assassination attempts in its territory.
It noted previous attempts to assassinate Hwang Jang-Yop, the North’s chief ideologue and former tutor to Kim Jong Il who defected to the South in 1997 and died of natural causes in 2010.
Kim Jong Nam was born from his father’s extra-marital relationship with Sung Hae-rim, a South Korean-born actress who died in Moscow.