US Korea Institute

Monday March 27th 2017
Subscribe to Our RSS feed@38NorthNK on Twitter
38 North offers informed analysis of events in and around the DPRK.

Subscribe for latest



Kim Jong Nam’s Assassination: What Lies Beneath?

07 March 2017

The investigation into the murder of Kim Jong Nam has led to an intense diplomatic standoff between the once-friendly North Korean and Malaysian governments, with tit for tat measures escalating day by day. In the coming days and even years we will probably see many more pages written about the circumstances of Kim Jong Nam’s death, but, as with John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, we might never know the whole truth.

(Photo: JoongAng Sunday/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: JoongAng Sunday/AFP/Getty Images)

Few facts are known so far (but there may be more that simply haven’t been revealed to the public). Moreover, there are a growing number of questions being raised about this attack that may never be answered, or to which the most obvious answers are self-contradictory. Based on media coverage, some of the key questions and answers for this case can be summarized as follows:

  • Who ordered the killing? Eight North Koreans have been named in connection with the attack, but the DPRK authorities deny any government involvement.
  • Who killed Kim Jong Nam? A body of evidence, including airport videos, shows that the hit was carried out by two women—one from Indonesia and one from Vietnam—believed to have been hired by North Koreans.
  • Why now? It is widely believed that this was likely an old order by Kim Jong Un that was carried out when the opportunity arose. Similarly, it could have been that Kim Jong Nam committed or was about to commit an act of treason, such as creating a government in exile or colluding with Chinese actors in favor of the enemies of Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Obviously, there are still a lot of questions which are unanswered or have yet to be addressed.

For example, why would North Korean professional assassins use seemingly untrained girls of dubious backgrounds for an act that could have been carried out quietly by a single not-so noticeable person simply spraying something into Kim’s face and quickly leaving?

Why was it conducted in a space full of cameras and witnesses? There are few places that are more public and with controlled access than a modern international airport; but even then, there are more appropriate places to carry out such an attack than a lobby full of people.

Why was Kim Jong Nam alone, without a guard of some kind?

Why did these girls take their time and not rush away? Video shows they openly wandered to the toilet and then left by public means of transport without hiding. Couldn’t the North Koreans have hired a car for them?

Why were they wearing such easy-to-spot outfits? They could have easily worn, for instance, a hijab, which is popular in Malaysia and would have covered their faces to prevent easy identification? They even sported the same clothes the next day at the same place as if wishing to get caught (or instructed to do so).

Why were North Korean citizens and even officials so noticeable at the scene when they should have tried to be as far away as possible? And why didn’t the North Koreans involved leave immediately after the attack? Why weren’t they stopped when suspicions of North Korean involvement arose immediately?

How did the South Korean press learn of the assassination only after an hour or two of the attack, when the name of the deceased had not even been confirmed yet? Does that mean somebody was tracking the events closely?

More importantly, who benefits from all this? The assassination came as a most unfortunate event for US-DPRK relations, as North Korean foreign ministry officials had been waiting on visas to participate in a Track II meeting in New York, the first to take place on US soil since 2011. After both a missile test and Kim Jong Nam’s murder, especially revelations about the use of VX nerve gas as the weapon of choice for the attack, the visas for the North Korean delegation were cancelled as the Trump administration now contemplates its response to what it considers an act of terror.

This attack also raises a strong doubt that a new, likely liberal South Korean government will start a dialogue with Pyongyang, as was widely expected. Relations with China also suffered, as Beijing immediately punished Kim Jong Un by banning coal exports for the rest of the year. Russia’s hopes for restarting multilateral negotiations were also dashed, quickly dissolving any warm feelings in Moscow. And, of course, North Korea’s relations with Malaysia—one of the few partners and outposts abroad—have been severely damaged over criticisms over the investigation process.

These are just a handful of the questions still to be answered about this ordeal. Numerous theories have emerged thus far about who perpetrated this act, why now and to what ends—everything from Kim Jong Un ordering the hit to something more complex such as some “reactionary” or China-biased forces in the North staging the event to curb Kim Jong Un’s influence. (For example, a group of intelligence people may have felt threatened by the Marshal and instructed their unsuspecting agents to stage the event to undermine Kim Jong Un’s standing both domestically and abroad.) We may never know the full story, but we should be watching closely to both the Malaysian investigations and North Korean responses over the next few weeks for more answers to why Kim Jong Nam was killed.

Reader Feedback

27 Responses to “Kim Jong Nam’s Assassination: What Lies Beneath?”

  1. nyolci says:

    As it’s been widely expected, talks about placing Korea on the “terror list” are ongoing, using this “incident” as a pretext. 38north has just published an “enthusiastic” article about this, that met an almost universal rejection by commenters who found the whole idea absurd. The comment section has been deleted. The “terror list” (officially the State Sponsors of Terrorism, maintained by the US Dept. of State) is seen widely as the US hit list, with a prominent past member of Cuba, for example.

  2. o.m. says:

    Some more doubts on the “US did it” theory:

    As nyolci pointed out himself, the US has a history of unilateral sanctions. Let’s face it, sanctions will work if the US convinces or pressures China to go along (cf Banco Delta Asia), and they won’t work if China isn’t helping. I don’t think China would be swayed by a provocation of this kind. I think the US knows that.

    If the US had tried and failed to quietly pressure Malaysia into severing ties with North Korea, the questions about this case would be the perfect excuse not to react now, either. So I don’t think it was aimed at influencing the Malaysian government.

    I asked the people who find the news timeline suspicious to provide detailed examples, I haven’t seen those yet. For now that’s no evidence of an US plot.

    It may well be that Malaysia was aware of Kim traveling through the country, and had flagged him for special attention by the security services. The name in the passport might have been a mutually agreed way to create plausible deniability. That would be a simple explanation why his death immediately got high-level attention.

    If Kim was murdered by means other than VX, why introduce VX traces into the plot? Each complication risks failure, and the North Korean WMD program isn’t in doubt. This situation is different from Iraq (which denied having WMD before the invasion).

    Most people (including me) think of VX as a gas. Easily googled LD50 levels and countermeasures are for battlefield use. If this attack was with a small amount of a liquid, I don’t find the lack of traces in the airport surprising. Take a folded rag into your hand, apply a splash of ink, wipe over some surface, inspect that surface and the hand which held the rag. If you are fast enough, there won’t be visible ink on your hand.

    I just tried it with ink. Of course I wouldn’t do it with anything unhealthy, so this isn’t much of an experiment or proof. Just a look at plausibility.

    Doubts on the “South Korea or Japan did it” theory:

    South Korea needs no excuse for sanctions against North Korea. If the goal was to influence worldwide perception of the DPRK, I’d expect more of a public diplomacy campaign to capitalize on this.

    The same applies to Japan.

    Regarding the “North Korea did it” theory:

    I believe that the DPRK acts more or less rational within their own context, which is different from most other countries. What they do is “evil” even if one can follow the logic.

    For comparison, look at the report of the Iraqi Perspectives Project. Much of what Saddam Hussein did made sense under the assumption that internal revolt was more dangerous to him than the US.

    It might be rational for a king in a hereditary monarchy to murder a sibling to consolidate the claim to the throne. This could happen when the sibling plots to overthrow the king, when a conspiracy tries to use the sibling as a figurehead, or when the king feels insecure and wants to remove a potential rallying point for potential plots.

    If I had to guess, an assassination ordered by the top leadership of the DPRK to “simplify” the domestic political scene would be the explanation. Of course that casts the DPRK in dynastic terms (see the paragraph above), which may be a gross misconception on my part.

  3. John says:

    Many interesting points!
    How come the mainstream media are not raising the same questions?
    (Maybe they are fake news)

    Anyway, another important question is who directed/or gave the toxic substance to the two girls (Vietnamese and Indonesian) so that they could attack KJN?

    On this question, here is an interesting news report:

    “She (Indonesian woman) only said in general that someone asked her to carry out this activity,” said Andreano Erwin, Indonesia’s deputy ambassador to Malaysia, after meeting with Ms. Siti for about a half-hour. “She said that she met with people who looked Japanese or Korean.” (NYT, 2/25/17)

    This raises another interesting question. Why did the Malaysian police focus their investigation on N. Koreans only? To be fair, they should have expanded their investigations to Japanese and South Koreans in the airport area. But they did not.

    It is quite possible that some anti-North Korea agents were involved in the killing, including agents of S. Korea, Japan, US, or anti-North groups. In particular, S. Korean agents are suspect because they had every reason to create a big news to divert S. Korean people’s attention from the on-going impeachment proceedings against President Park. They also probably wanted to make it impossible for any change in N. Korea policy by the new administration in Washington. That is why S. Korean media first published the news on the killing, after receiving the news from the S. Korean government source.

    Is Malaysia just cooperating with the S. Korean authorities to back up their story for some secret benefits?

  4. o.m. says:

    In his comment on March 8th, Ildo Hwang referenced a February 14th news report. I haven’t seen similar references to any February 13th news reports. I’ve found news reports that there were multiple South Korean news reports on February 13th, but that is not the same. There were other reports that the news broke in the night of February 14th.

    Could somebody who thinks that there were news reports on February 13th post a few examples? The claim that the news reports were “suspiciously fast” needs to be supported by some more numbers.

    And one would have to look at the GMT time, not just local time on one side of the international dateline or the other.

  5. jakob says:

    So many unanswered questions. Christine Anh brings up an interesting point. She wonders how come South Korea knew the two women used the VX nerve gas before Malaysian authorities. Why did Malaysia wait days before sweeping KLIA, and found no traces? If NK was behind KJN’s death, they were messy and broke the tried and true pattern of using a single agent to carry out their designs?
    And despite all the nasty words exchanged between KL and Pyongyang, the Malaysians are making nice to the North Koreans.
    The plot thickens….

  6. What confirmation do we have that the murder weapon really was VX? Has there been independent confirmation from an OPCW lab? If so how were the assailants able to simply walk away and wash their hands?

  7. nyolci says:

    Hi o.m.,

    I’m actually happy to have meaningful debate with you, and we don’t descend into ad hominem attacks. Obviously I don’t know what happened to Kim, I only present my thoughts. My assumptions regarding NK is that they act rationally, they are not “evil”, and no more “brutal” than any other nation. These are reasonable assumptions and consistent with what we know. You can find astonishing amount of BS in the press, most of it is demonstrably false.

    Regarding this concrete case, a few additional points:
    -Kim was using an assumed identity (Kim Chol). It is still not confirmed that he was the brother of Kim Jong Un.
    -In the Hungarian press (my home :) ) his passport was reported to be “forged” but as far as we know this was issued officially. This means Kim had some kind of NK support for his schemes, whatever those had been, and he wasn’t a fugitive.
    (-He may have been some kind of unofficial ambassador for back channel talks with the Japanese.)
    -The ladies were quite obviously dupes.
    -In the beginning the whole incident looked like a stupid prank, and the initial involvement of the Malaysian police was likely on the “constable” level.
    -The VX is still not confirmed beyond doubt. The Malaysians likely used some kits that produced positive results. These kits show the presence of certain type of chemicals, and it is likely that trace amounts (or some unrelated stuff) can produce positives.
    -The introduction of VX (or traces or other stuff) could’ve happened anytime between the incident and the use of the kits.
    -It may have been that the ladies sprayed only some irritant to make sure Kim would be transported to the hospital where the actual murder took place. Maybe he got simply suffocated. The direct cause of VX death is suffocation. The whole matter was handled as some kind of non serious health issue in the hospital, there were no guards or whatever.
    -Actually, at least one relevant Malaysian authority (the local FEMA or whatever) has concluded that it wasn’t VX, ‘cos there was no decontamination. VX decontamination is not a trivial matter, it’s not like you call the janitor and wash your hands. It can linger for months, and even small amounts can produce serious symptoms.
    -It is very likely that some intelligence agency gave tips to the police or the Malaysian intelligence very early. The VX angle, the possible involvement of the diplomat, and the true(?) identity of Kim Chol are 3 points that turned up early almost like from the air. As for the diplomat the accusations were so baseless they had to release him. Apparently they couldn’t find _any_ link (however indirect) between him and the case.
    -It is very likely that some agency “leaked” the case to the press very early.
    -It is very likely that the actual Malaysian investigation is not conducted by the police but the intelligence or whatever, even if the police is formally in charge. If we believe the diplomat, his interrogators tried to press him to confess (or defect or whatever). It means the interrogators weren’t detectives. I even find it plausible that the police have doubts and maybe they are embarrassed, and they pressed for the release of the guy who could’ve been kept in custody much longer. Okay, it is possible that the diplomat lies.

    All in all, the assumption that this was a provocation is not at all outlandish.

  8. Kostadinov says:

    “Regarding the suggestion by Kostadinov that somebody exploited a natural death, I don’t see the timeline fit.”
    This was not so low-probability event if the deceased has heart problems. If you add the additional stress from the “attack” of the two girls and he is missing the plane the probability increased to a dangerous level.
    “The plan to do that would have been ready to go when a low-probability event happened.”
    I agree that the plan to exploit this death would have been ready in advance.

  9. nyolci says:

    Hello o.m.,

    “pushing scanctions through the UNSC surely requires an effort by the US administration”
    The US has a history of unilateral measures, including sanctions. E.g. the US can place NK on the “state sponsors of terrorism” list. The actual consequences are not clear, but surely this episode will always be mentioned in the future.

    “If the US were that displeased with the NK-Malay relations, wouldn’t there be some diplomacy first?”
    We don’t know what had been happening in the background. This may’ve been a constantly raised topic during talks, without much publicity. Diplomatic relations constitute an important part of sovereignty, so it is quite plausible that the US didn’t want to make demands publicly, hoping for a silent break in the NK-Malay relations.

    “Where are detailed sources that the media DID know the identity within hours?”
    Jepp, and another question: how did they know it was VX? This question is not a trivial one, it’s not like you routinely test for VX, there are no VX dogs etc. What I find _VERY_ plausible is that the Malaysian police got tips from a foreign security agency. It’s likely that they were acting on the tip when they arrested the diplomat.

    Agree, I don’t think either it was natural.

    “Regarding the effect (or lack thereof) on medical staff”
    Experts say that the lack of effect on other people is noticeable, but what is more important that the symptoms on Kim doesn’t match. For example he could walk in the hospital. If it really had been VX, he should’ve had a very blurred vision. Etc.

    “Related question, are there things that produce a false positive on a VX test? Trace amounts of pesticides?”
    Or trace amount of VX. Or trace amount of VX decomposition products. Most tests actually only show the presence decomposition products.

    “Compare the Litvinenko case”
    The Litvinenko case is far from settled. The British “inquiry” was very obviously flawed. What I fear is that the “Kim case” will be another orthodoxy like the “Litvinenko case”.

  10. o.m. says:

    Hello nyolci and Kostadinov,

    pushing scanctions through the UNSC surely requires an effort by the US administration, which has to expend “political capital” to make China go along. A third party could not rely on that happening. They might have taken a calculated risk, of course.

    Affecting the relations between the DPRK and Malaysia might be more attainable, but then the US and Malaysia already have a security cooperation. If the US were that displeased with the NK-Malay relations, wouldn’t there be some diplomacy first?

    But I think Aidan’s question from March 8th is still open. Where are detailed sources that the media DID know the identity within hours?

    Regarding the suggestion by Kostadinov that somebody exploited a natural death, I don’t see the timeline fit. The plan to do that would have been ready to go when a low-probability event happened.

    Regarding the effect (or lack thereof) on medical staff, surely many would have worn gloves. Could that have been enough? Does anybody reading this have unclassified data on the effects of less-than-lethal VX doses? A bit of googling says that the median noticable dose is much lower than the median lethal dose.

    Related question, are there things that produce a false positive on a VX test? Trace amounts of pesticides?

    Using VX does sound like a bad idea from the viewpoint of North Korea, but they have often done things that look like bad ideas to me. Compare the Litvinenko case — NK might have figured if those perpetrators got away, they might do so, too. Also, they might have guessed (wrongly?) that nobody would recognize the symptoms before the evidence was disposed along with the medical waste.

  11. nyolci says:

    to o.m.,

    “If it was an US plot”
    I never said that. I only said that the “North Korean” plot looked extremely implausible, and the press didn’t raise any question, they were parroting the line as truth. The older Kim looked like a non entity, he had no base at home, apparently he’d been given a small fief as some kind of a commercial attache. As far as we know he was about to meet some Japanese to discuss commercial matters. There’s no information about his immediate defection or whatever. He simply didn’t look to be a concern for the Koreans.

    His killing looked like someone wanted to have the maximum media attention and the associated circus. You can argue that the Koreans wanted to deter future defectors with this dramatic act, but again, as far as we know, Kim wasn’t a defector and he wasn’t going to defect.

    As for using VX, as far as we can know the matter is still not settled. Serious CW experts expressed doubt. Actually, if I were a Korean planning the killing of a defector, the last thing I would consider is something like VX, a thing that _guarantees_ a very serious backlash again my country. All in all, the Korean motives in a plot presented in the press is quite weak.

    “[invasion plan like for Iraq in 2013] I see nothing like this unfolding now.”
    Assuming a non-Korean plot (regardless of whether it is US or South Korean or whatever) is much more plausible, and you don’t have to have an invasion plan that needs this kind of pretext. Just look at what have been achieved so far: the Korean-Malaysian relations have deteriorated seriously. Malaysia was one of the few countries that have quite normal relations with Korea (including visa free travels for Koreans).

    Furthermore, this case can be a brilliant pretext for further sanctions, adding another level of isolation and severing more commercial ties with the remaining (non-Chinese) commercial partners of Korea. Any commercial exchange involving any kind of chemicals can be restricted because of the CW angle. Also, this thing may have a (marginal) destabilization effect inside the Korean elite.

    “If it was an US plot, do you propose it was organized by the Obama administration or the Trump administration?”
    Almost irrelevant, and frankly, the agencies in question have a well documented history of operating without “civilian” oversight. I.e. the presidential administration shouldn’t necessarily been aware of anything.

  12. Kostadinov says:

    It is absurd to find VX on the face of Kim Chol(the real name of the deceased) several days after the alleged “poisoning” and nobody of the personal, police and medical staff in contact with him minutes after the incident was not affected and show no sign of this very powerfull chemical weapon.
    The possible scenario only Kim Chol to be affected by VX is that it was poisoned by the medical staff at the aitrport but this is improbable. The real scenario is that he deceased from heart-stroke, the poisoning was invented in the following day by south korean services and/or media and the malaysian authorites are under strong pressure to “prove” this at any cost.
    The problem with the south korean media is not the 2 or 30 hours interval but that south korea media know that somebody is killed and his indentity even before the local police in other country.

  13. Mark Sommer says:

    Good analysis yes sounds funny. The women were intended to survive and combined they created the lethal application. That’s the one thing we seem to be pretty sure of.

  14. o.m. says:

    More questions than answers. I’ll add a few more questions.

    To those who believe in a US/Western plot, like nyolci or George:

    We’ve seen the US lie about weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion. This was part of a public diplomacy campaign to build a consensus for the invasion. I see nothing like this unfolding now. What game plan do you suspect? When will they call for invasion?

    If it was an US plot, do you propose it was organized by the Obama administration or the Trump administration? If it was organized by Obama, what makes you think that Trump will go ahead with it?

    To those who believe in a NK plot, like Randall:

    Kim Jong Nam was a grandson of Kim Il Sung. In a dynastic sense, a possible spare heir to the throne. Could the regime function without a Kim figurehead? There are not many left.

  15. Roger Bontemps says:

    I speculate the girls were used in the operation because the handlers suspected they, too, would succumb to VX. Given their occupations, no one would be particularly surprised by their untimely end. That they both lived after handling the stuff seems like dumb luck. Clearly no one in their right mind would handle a nerve agent with their bare hands, so I do believe they were duped to the extent that they did not know what substance they were handling, hence no particular need for alarm. Their casual clothing and exit also indicates to me that they did not suspect the dimensions of the operation.

    As for the airport location, it would be the only opportunity of a handful that could be predictably rehearsed. Most of us go to work at the same time every day, do the same leisure activities in the same place and/or keep a schedule of some sort. I would guess KJN’s movements were otherwise less routine, making any sort of operation more difficult. If one knew the flight details in advance however, an operation like this becomes much more feasible, and could be done in other locations at any time. Further, I suggest that an airport with all of its cameras and security was really no problem. No matter where the operation went down, the first suspects would have always been the same, as would be the publicity.

    As far as I know, nothing in NK is done by individuals. Everything is done in pairs, even observation and observation of observation. At the very least, someone had to be at the airport to provide the VX, identify KJN, initiate the operation and confirm the attack first hand. Sounds like at least four people, and perhaps eight or more.

    George Perles is a troll on Vlad’s payroll.

  16. nyolci says:

    George, you are perfectly right. This looks so obviously a provocation, I can’t fathom how an expert may believe it was the DPRK behind it.

  17. George Perles says:

    The most likely scenario is that US agents carried out the attack and will use the chemical weapons as an excuse to start the next war in Asia. All part of the pivot to Asia. US will use opportunity to beat back Chinese control of the South China Sea, perhaps some regime change in some of the smaller countries and encircle Russia on the Asian flank.

  18. Many thanks to Ildo Hwang for his admirably detailed comment. Over to you, N Downes and Danny. Can you counter this with chapter and verse proving that the story actually broke the same day KJN died, on Monday 13 February? It would be good to settle this definitively.

  19. Ildo Hwang says:

    Maybe someone needs to clarify the fact.
    I’m a former journalist and currently working as a researcher regarding North Korea issues.

    The initial report from South Korea was TV Chosun, February 14, late evening news.
    This is the first news that can be searched in the South Korean portals which cover almost all meaningful news outlets. They titled the report “특종(Exclusive)”, which means it was the first ever report dealing the event from all media of the country.
    As far as I know, the assasination happend February 13, early moning, at least 30 hours earlier even considering time gap. I’m just wondering where the author learned “South Korean media reported it just few hours later,” which seems simply not true to South Korean readers. And I’d like to know what report Nathaniel Downes had in mind mentioning “the first report came out 2 hours 5 minutes after the assasination.”

  20. Roland says:

    More important the VX-question.

    Interesting peace by Dr. Jean P. Zanders

    If really used, it would have been impossible for the assaulting lady -and other people getting in contact with the victim- to survive or beeing hurt badly.

  21. Danny says:

    It was in the news late 13FEB but it wasn’t until the next day that most medias around the picked it up.

  22. Interesting, thank you, Nathaniel. Who carried that first report, please? And why did it (if I recall) take 24 hours for the world to pick up the story?

  23. Nathaniel Downes says:

    No, the first reports out of South Korea were on Feb 13th, and they did name him. The earliest report came out 2 hours 5 minutes after the assassination.

  24. chernobog says:

    It could be a red flag operation and claims that is NK for certain is assumption, speculation is simply jump to conclussions that suits agenda of mainstream media that is under guidance of hostile states/countries
    that shaped image of NK with their forced narrative.

  25. Randall says:

    It’s a big mystery why they NK chose such a obvious assassination method.

  26. Good questions. One small correction. The ROK press, and then the world, only got wind of Kim Jong-nam’s death a full 24 hours later, not “an hour or two”. KJN died on Monday 13 Feb; the story broke the next day. A few accounts say he actually died the same day we got the news, ie on Valentine’s day, Feb 14. But in fact his death was a day earlier. (Unless it is I who am confused.)

Leave a Reply

Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.