Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, appears to have been assassinated in an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Early reports indicated that two women attacked him with poisoned needles, though later details suggested a different method involving some sort of spray. He reportedly died on the way to the hospital. The two suspects have so far eluded capture, but Malaysian police said they were likely North Korean agents.
If confirmed, Kim Jong Nam's assassination would be the highest profile North Korean death since the December 2013 execution of Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek. Jang oversaw the country's economic reform process and was believed to have once built support around Kim Jong Nam as successor to his father, Kim Jong Il. The audacious killing of Kim Jong Nam, if tied to the North Korean government, could mean Kim Jong Un is moving to eliminate threats to his power and raises questions about the government's stability as the international community piles on pressure over its nuclear program.
Between 1994 and 2001, Kim Jong Nam appeared to be the anointed successor to his father. Kim Jong Il, however, deliberately left the question open to prevent factions from forming around his successor and challenging his continued rule. But in 2001, one year before Kim Jong Il's 60th birthday and amidst an inter-Korean rapprochement with the south, North Korean media began to raise the idea of succession. It set the stage for Kim Jong Nam to begin more open preparations to take the helm. But an incident shortly after caused major embarrassment for the North Korean government: Kim Jong Nam was detained in Japan for traveling on a false passport to the Tokyo Disney Resort. This appeared to have knocked him out of line for succession and he spent the next several years abroad.
But Kim Jong Nam experienced another reversal of fortune. Around 2007, rumors surfaced that he had returned to North Korea from the Chinese southern autonomous city of Macau and had started working at agencies belonging to the Workers' Party, a key pillar of the North Korean leadership structure. Around that time, members of the pro-China wing of the North Korean government, most prominently Jang Song Thaek, formed a faction around Kim Jong Nam in expectation that he would take power, open to China and carry out economic reform.
It didn't happen. Instead, Kim Jong Il named his younger son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir in September 2010. Kim Jong Un ascended to the position of supreme leader in December 2011. For most of the time after that, Kim Jong Nam lived in exile in Macau, Singapore and Malaysia. However, he traveled frequently to mainland China and is believed to have gained the support of many officials in Beijing as well as factions of the North Korean Workers' Party. His position within these factions is what could have made him a target.
For China, Kim Jong Un's rule has created a number of liabilities. Beijing's major interest in North Korea is in maintaining a neutral and stable buffer against U.S. allies in the Pacific. While Beijing has its own concerns about the idea of a nuclear North Korea, it prefers that outcome to the collapse of the government in Pyongyang. But the more unpredictable Pyongyang becomes, the more Beijing's objectives are in jeopardy. In fact, North Korea's stance has increasingly put Beijing at odds with international community and pushed the United States to assume a more aggressive military posture at China's doorstep. In some Chinese academic and policy circles, support has grown for implementing a hard-line policy against North Korea. In 2012, a plan even surfaced to oust Kim Jong Un from power and replace him with his half brother. The plan resurfaced in 2016.
Still, China's stance regarding North Korea has yet to be determined. Beijing's current ties with Pyongyang and reaction to the alleged assassination is equally unclear. But perceived internal and external threats against Kim Jong Un's continued rule will only make relations more uncertain.