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.
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.