'Assassins': Who was Kim Jong-nam? How a Disneyland trip cost the once favored heir to North Korea's leadership

It is widely believed that he was killed on the orders of his half-brother, and current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un


                            'Assassins': Who was Kim Jong-nam? How a Disneyland trip cost the once favored heir to North Korea's leadership
Kim Jong-nam (Getty Images)

In 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the oldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was assassinated. The circumstances of his death were entirely mysterious. He was exposed to a VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. It is widely believed that he was killed on the orders of his half-brother, and current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Four North Korean suspects left the airport shortly after the attack, traveling back to Pyongyang.

An Indonesian woman, Siti Aisyah, and a Vietnamese woman, Đoàn Thị Hương, were charged with murder but said they thought they were taking part in a TV prank. In March 2019, Siti Aisyah was freed after the charge against her was dropped.

In April, the murder charge against Hương was also dropped and she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of "voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means". She was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, but received a one-third reduction in her term and was released on 3 May 2019. 

Ryan White's latest documentary, 'Assassins' — out in virtual cinemas on December 11 and available for viewing on-demand early next year — follows the assassination, the investigation that followed and the highly-televised trials of both Doan and Siti. The documentary also takes a look at Kim Jong-nam, his life, and how his younger brother overtook him to become the Supreme Leader of North Korea.

As the oldest son, Kim Jong-nam was highly favored by his father who relished being in the role of a parent. Kim Jong-nam was seen to be the viable candidate to take over Kim Jong-il's role. However, a family trip to Disneyland in Tokyo, Japan, ended up embarrassing the country and therefore, forcing Kim Jong-nam to withdraw himself from the succession line. 

In May 2001, Kim Jong-nam was arrested in Japan on arrival at Narita International Airport, accompanied by two women and a four-year-old boy identified as his son. He was traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport using a Chinese alias, Pang Xiong (literally translating to "fat bear"). After being detained, he was deported to China, where he said he was traveling to Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland with his son.

The incident caused his father to cancel a planned visit to China due to the embarrassment it caused him. Until this incident, Kim Jong-nam was the expected successor. However, Kim Jong-un's mother, Ko Young-hee, was actively interested in getting one of her sons to be the successor. The documentary even suggests that it might have been her who tipped off authorities about Kim Jong-nam's arrival in Tokyo.

The Korean People's Army was devoted to Ko Young-hee, and so this was more detrimental to Kim Jong-nam's prospects. Additionally, in 2003, it was widely reported that Kim Jong-nam was living in self-imposed exile in Macau (a Chinese autonomous region), adding strength to the rumors that he was removed from the succession line. 

However, while the Tokyo incident is seen to have led to this, Kim Jong-nam himself claimed that he had fallen out of favor due to his advocating for reform. In an email to the editor of the Tokyo Shimbun, Kim Jong-nam wrote that after being educated in Switzerland, he "insisted on reform and market-opening", leading his father to decide that he had turned "into a capitalist".

'Assassins' will release in theaters and on virtual cinema on December 11, 2020.

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