The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Kim Jong-nam

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Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of Kim Jong-un, is dead. The quirky fan of Disneyland—and of just not being in North Korea generally—fell ill at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and died suddenly on Monday. Was it murder? Maybe.

According to media reports from South Korea, the elder Kim—who is perhaps best known for being busted by customs officials when trying to enter Japan with a false passport in 2001, in an attempt visit to Tokyo Disneyland—was attacked by two females who killed him using either poisoned needles or a poisoned cloth. Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat reported that "the deceased felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind. He felt dizzy, so he asked for help." He died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, certainly didn’t like his brother very much, and has taken a shot at him before—so it wouldn't be surprising if the North Korean government had something to do with his death. If they are responsible, it certainly took a bit of effort. While his ill-fated trip to Disneyland eventually saw him exiled to Macau by his father, the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam was not an easy target. He loved to travel, and in recent years had been spotted everywhere from Singapore to Jakarta to Paris (where his son, Kim Han-sol, lives). For a guy supposedly in hiding, he seemed to take special joy in running up tabs at expensive restaurants.

Historically, airports have been bad news for Kim Jong-nam. In 2001, he was nabbed by Japanese authorities at Tokyo's Narita International Airport for trying to slip into the country using a passport from the Dominican Republic—a crime made all the more bizarre because, in those days, he was the heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, the Shining Star of Paektu Mountain. He probably could have gotten VIP treatment with a North Korean passport, if only because they are so rare and almost never used more than once. On this trip, however, he preferred to travel as a Dominican named Pang Xiong (literally, “Fat Bear” in Mandarin).

This was the trip in which the globetrotter was attempting to visit Disneyland Tokyo. This did not go over well back home: After Kim was deported to China, Kim Jong-un became heir to the throne. (There is a middle brother, Kim Jong-chul, but he was passed over for being too feminine for his father’s taste.) Regardless, the official president of North Korea is Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, making North Korea the world’s only necrocracy.

Because the Kim family isn’t exactly known for their lavish press conferences, much of Kim Jong-nam’s life had to be pieced together from photographs and unofficial reports. He didn’t attend his father’s funeral, and certainly wasn’t there for his brother’s “inauguration.” He was also reportedly opposed to hereditary rule, writing, allegedly, “As a matter of common sense, a transfer to the third generation is unacceptable.” He also threw shade at his brother, which certainly didn't help his position in the actuary tables. “The power elite that have ruled the country will continue to be in control,” he wrote. “I have my doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern.”

Being any other Kim but the top one is a hard business. Kim Jong-nam’s mother was exiled to Moscow, where she died alone. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was declared by the North Korean state to be a “despicable human scum” who was “worse than a dog” and who “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.” He was later executed. (Though rumor has it that he was fed alive to 120 starving dogs, experts say he was more likely killed by a firing squad.)

Kim Jong-nam leaves behind a legacy of booze, women, and mouse ears. Considering his brother’s affinity for building nuclear weapons and lobbing long-range missiles at any country that isn’t North Korea, an ardent desire to ride the world famous Jungle Cruise isn’t the worst way to be remembered.

Portions of this article were published previously in 2013 and 2014.