Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, is reported to have taken refuge in Singapore and now Malaysia.
After the execution last month of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek , whom Jong-nam was closed to, the younger man is said to have been “lying low”. The apparent purge by Kim Jong-un included the close associates of Jang as well.
Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the late leader Kim Jong-il, was the originally preferred heir, until he fell out of favour in 2001 when he was detained at Japan’s Narita airport for trying to enter the country on a forged passport with a woman and a child. He told authorities that he wanted to visit Disneyland.
He was reported to have been travelling on a forged Dominican Republic passport using a Chinese alias, Pang Xiong, which means "fat bear" in Chinese.
The news made headlines around the world.
Kim Jong-il had to cancel a planned trip to China at the time because of embarrassment over the incident.
Around 2003, Jong-un was reported to have moved to and lived in Macau. In 2011, he survived an assassination attempt while living there.
The Chosunilbo reports, “[A] source said a North Korean agent tried to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in Macau in 2011 but failed after a bloody shootout with his bodyguards. That prompted him to leave Macau and move to another Southeast Asian country.”
That country is believed to be Singapore. Jong-nam most probably moved there after his younger half-brother Kim Jong-un came into power in 2011.
Now that his uncle, who is believed to have provided him funds while Jong-nam lived abroad in exile, has been executed, Jong-nam fears there will be another assassination attempt as Jong-un seeks to consolidate his power base further.
"Mr Kim [Jong-nam] has been the target of an attempt on his life in the past and it would be reasonable for him to think he is still at risk," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, told The Telegraph.
"He usually tries to stay in China, but there are many North Korean agents in China now and he clearly felt he was at risk again," Professor Shigemura said.
According to the South Korean Chosunilbo paper, Kim Jong-nam has not been seen in Macau for over a year. "He seems to be living a quiet life travelling between Singapore and China," a source based in Beijing told the paper.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) also said last month that Jong-nam is “living in exile in China and Singapore.”
On Tuesday, the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Jong-nam had surfaced in Malaysia.
The paper “quoted sources as saying Kim Jong-nam left his home in Singapore earlier this month and was spotted in a Korean restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.”
The Chosunilbo said:
“Until December of 2011, when his father, former leader Kim Jong-il was alive, Kim Jong-nam shuttled back and forth between Beijing and Macau, where his first and second wives lived. He also travelled to Thailand, Austria and Russia and stopped in Pyongyang once in a while.
“But after Kim Jong-il's death, he disappeared from view. He apparently moved to Southeast Asia, mainly Singapore and Malaysia.”
According to Professor Shigemura: "In Malaysia, it may be easier for him to hide. Kim Jong-un wants him dead because he knows many secrets about him and Pyongyang, but also because he fears that Kim Jong-nam could serve as the focal point of a coup against his rule.”
It is believed that his late uncle, Jang, controlled most of the North Korean businesses in Singapore and Malaysia, trying to earn foreign currency for the regime back home.
“One of the companies,” Chosunilbo reports, “which is involved in overseas construction and employs 1,000 laborers, was run by an official Jang had hand-picked and sent back millions of U.S. dollars to the eminence grise each year.”
The Yomiuri Shimbun said Kim Jong-nam “used Singapore as his home base while travelling in the region but became a virtual recluse after Jang's execution in December.”
“He may now have decided that he is not among the targets of the bloody purge that accompanied his uncle's ouster.”
Some believe that Jong-nam travels freely because he is being protected by the children of high-ranking Chinese officials.
There is speculation that Beijing is protecting Kim Jong-nam to make him leader of North Korea in case the Kim Jong-un regime collapses. But he has denied such speculation, saying China's treatment of him is merely diplomatic courtesy.
“Malaysia and Singapore may be safe for Kim Jong-nam since Beijing wields considerable clout there. There are rumours that China's security detail doubles whenever he visits, and that he moves around switching back and forth between two identical cars to avoid detection,” Chosunilbo says.
North Korea’s state-run paper Rodong Sinmun said recently that “a person who can point a gun without hesitation to one’s flesh and blood is a true man of principle.”
Whether Jong-nam and his family are truly safe is left to be seen.