|Kim Jong-nam in 2007 when he visited Beijing via a flight from Macau / Korea Times file|
Half-brother of North Korean leader had grown more fearful of safety but led ‘relaxing' life in gambling hub without bodyguards, friend reveals
By Raquel Carvalho
A woman with a Vietnamese passport was arrested on Wednesday at Kuala Lumpur International Airport following a South Korean intelligence committee report that two Asian women were suspected of attacking Kim Jong-nam with poison at the same airport.
Kim seemed to be expecting his younger half-brother, who has a reputation for ruthlessness, to arrange for his execution someday but rarely wanted to talk about the regime, except for the odd quip about its pariah status, according to a source who was his friend in Macau.
The source, who had known Kim for a decade and spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears for his safety, said: "He knew his life was at risk … and he was aware his brother was after him."
The eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had arranged to meet the source and other friends on Tuesday in Macau for dinner. Instead, they received the stunning news of the death of their friend they called "John".
At around lunchtime that day, a mutual friend called the source, worried that John had not been in touch for more than a day.
"He asked me whether I had heard from John, that's what we called him here … He was not answering his cellphone and, even when he was abroad, he would always reply. We found that very strange," the source said.
That evening, they learned that Kim had been killed the previous day at the Kuala Lumpur airport as he was preparing to board a flight to Macau. Malaysian police on Wednesday said his body was undergoing an autopsy.
According to the source, though Kim's fears had deepened after the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013, he was never paranoid or overly cautious. "I think it was simply not in his character," the friend said, noting that Kim would stay in Macau and some foreign countries without bodyguards.
Kim raised a son and a daughter in Macau. The son, in his early 20s, the daughter and the mother of the children are all believed to be in the former Portuguese enclave.
A source said Kim's son, who received part of his education in Paris, was seriously worried about his safety and that he had been placed under protection. Macau police did not confirm whether they were offering special protection to Kim's relatives.
Kim, 45, was once seen as a potential heir to Kim Jong-il, but an attempt to enter Japan illegally to visit Disneyland in May 2001 ended any such prospect, according to one line of thinking. But other Korea-watchers say Kim, who was educated in Switzerland and Russia, was never a real threat or a strong rival to Kim Jong-un, who ended up taking power. Nonetheless, Pyongyang found it humiliating that he was detained for holding a false Dominican Republic passport in Japan.
Kim then moved to Macau, where sources said he led a low-key life in a gambling haven that has long been known for having close ties with North Korea.
"He had a relaxing life here. Obviously he felt he was protected by China," the source said. "Macau suited his personality. He enjoyed life and the good things about it. Macau offered him security and also entertainment."
The portly Kim was a lover of French and Portuguese wine, he said. Earlier reports said he liked spending his time in saunas and at slot machines.
"I don't know him as a gambler, but I know he really liked electronic games. I'm not sure if it involved betting or not," the friend said.
A casino security expert said someone with Kim's background would appear in a database of "politically exposed persons" used by gambling operators to do security checks for transactions over 500,000 patacas. However, if he did gamble, he could have used different papers, the expert said.
For the Macau government, Kim's residency was a concern. "Particularly during the succession period," said another source, who was familiar with the matter.
Lately, Kim had travelled mostly between Macau, the mainland – where he had relatives – and Paris, where he liked to practise the language and enjoy the cuisine, his Macau friend said.
"He was very cheerful and mingled easily," the friend said, adding that Kim was also engaged in some unspecified charity work to help Koreans, except they were from the south. "He was very humane, he used to help many people here, particularly fellow citizens from South Korea … It is a shame he was not given the chance to live longer."
The North Korean consulate in Hong Kong refused to comment on Wednesday.
Before moving to Macau, Kim had reportedly held senior posts in the Pyongyang government, working in information technology and domestic intelligence.
According to the friend, Kim rarely shared his views on North Korean politics: "He didn't talk much about his brother or the regime, although sometimes he would crack jokes about it. He was mostly reserved in that regard."
But he added: "He never hid that he had some political aspirations. He did not want to succeed his father and he did not agree with his brother's regime, but I think he hoped one day he could play some political role in his country.
"My sense is that he genuinely cared about its people and their living conditions."