epa05793930 A picture taken in August 1981 at an unknown location shows Kim Jong-nam (R, front row), the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, together with his father late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (L, front row). A press statement released by the Malaysian police on 14 February 2017, said a 46-year-old North Korean named Kim Chol died the previous day on his way to a hospital from a Malaysia International Airport service counter where he sought initial medical treatment. Reports said Kim Chol, an alias used by Kim Jong-nam, was attacked by two unidentified women with chemical sprays. The suspects fled immediately in a taxi, and Malaysian police suspect North Korea was behind the killing. EPA/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT
A 1981 Kim family portrait shows Kim Jong Nam, front right, beside his father Kim Jong Il © EPA

From hidden grandson to heir-apparent to playboy to exile, Kim Jong Nam’s story is one of wildly fluctuating fortunes. A would-be reformer, he represents a significant “what if” in the history of North Korea. 

But his death will serve as a warning, both to the Pyongyang elite and wider audiences, about the nature of the Kim dynasty and its opposition to change. 

Born in 1971, Kim Jong Nam’s life was unusual from the outset. For years he was cloistered away from the world, raised in luxury by his grandmother and detached from any interaction with other children or others. 

On special occasions, such as his birthday, his father Kim Jong Il would visit, delivering presents worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

His isolation was intended to hide his existence from his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the supreme leader, who disapproved of his mother, a former actress who was five years Kim Jong Il’s senior.

For school, he was shipped off to Switzerland and then Russia, where he acquired a host of European languages as well as a taste for nightlife. His partying scandalised his mother enough to pull him back to Pyongyang, where after years of careful manoeuvring he fell off the political precipice. 

Kim began preaching market reforms, falling foul of his father who reoriented his attention towards his other sons, Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chul. Then, in 2001, he was arrested at Tokyo airport for using a fake Dominican Republic passport. He told officials he had wanted to take his son to the local Disneyland.

His political prospects soon lay in ruins and around 2003 he fled to Macau, where he became a fixture at the city’s casinos. A profligate spender, he earned a reputation as a gambler and playboy.

He also began publicly criticising his homeland — and Kim Jong Un, his half-brother, the young supreme leader.

When Jang Song Taek, his uncle, was purged in North Korea in 2013, the funding for Kim’s lavish Macanese lifestyle quickly dried up. He went to ground, avoiding publicity and travelling the region on low-cost airlines.

He was waiting for one such budget flight in Kuala Lumpur airport on Monday when he met his demise, apparently at the hands of his brother’s agents. 

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong

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