ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now a North Korean murder mystery. The estranged, exiled half-brother of the country's dictator seems to have been assassinated at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. According to South Korean news media, Kim Jong Nam was poisoned there. Wire services cite Malaysian officials also saying that Kim was attacked. NPR has not independently confirmed those reports.
To tell us more about this member of the Kim dynasty and his relationship with his half-brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, we called up journalist Jean Lee in Hokkaido, Japan, on Skype. She's now a global fellow at the Wilson Center, and she says Kim Jong Nam was once seen as North Korea's heir apparent.
JEAN LEE: He had certainly been given some high-profile posts within the Workers' Party of North Korea and so had been assumed to be next in line to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il. But that all fell by the wayside in 2001 when he was stopped entering Japan apparently to go to Disneyland. And he was found to have been trying to get into the country on a fake Dominican passport. And so it's believed that that was so embarrassing to Kim Jong Il and to the regime that he fell out of favor and was no longer considered the heir apparent.
SIEGEL: That's 15 years ago. What's he been doing since?
LEE: So it wasn't too long after that that he went overseas. And he's pretty much been overseas apart from a couple of trips back to Pyongyang. But certainly the South Korean media and South Korean intelligence do keep close tabs on him. So we do have reports of him surfacing from time to time in - mostly in Macau and Beijing, Malaysia, Singapore.
SIEGEL: Well, since there are reports that this is an assassination - or was - and since there are suspicions that Kim Jong Un would be behind it, how would you describe Kim Jong Un's relationship with his half-brother and the regime in Pyongyang?
LEE: Certainly not very close. Now, they have different mothers. They did not grow up together, and they did not clearly have a close relationship. Now, one of the things that Kim Jong Nam may have been worried about was that Kim Jong Un, in 2013, ordered the execution of his own uncle.
Now, Kim Jong Nam is believed to have been close to that executed uncle, so he certainly would have feared for his life because what followed after that execution was an extended purge. So he certainly would have been worried that that connection would have put his life in danger and that even somebody who is a member of North Korea's ruling family would not be exempt from that kind of scrutiny.
SIEGEL: He also gave some newspaper interviews, I've read. Did he say very provocative things in those interviews?
LEE: So in the last couple of years, he has given a few interviews to Japanese media. He has said, for example, that he opposed the hereditary succession of leadership from his father, Kim Jong Il, to his younger half-brother, Kim Jong Un. And he has also said that he saw the likelihood that North Korea would collapse if they didn't carry out some economic reform. So certainly these two things would, under North Korean law, be cause for treason.
SIEGEL: But if in fact this was an ordered assassination, it sounds as though this was somebody who would be a very unlikely rival to the leader of North Korea. Is that a measure of the degree of fear of any kind of rivalry in Pyongyang these days?
LEE: Everything about North Korea is so murky, so there's no way for us to know the exact reason behind this. But you know, in some ways, North Korea does run like a feudal monarchy. It sounds very Henry VIII that the brother would try to exterminate anyone who might be a possible successor to the throne or a challenge to his legitimacy. But in many ways, North Korea does operate like the feudal monarchy that it was for hundreds of years. And so this would not be so out of line in terms of North Korean history.
SIEGEL: Jean Lee, thanks for talking with us about the story out of Malaysia today about the death of a man who was once in line to become leader of North Korea.
LEE: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO SONG, "TRAITOR")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.