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(News Focus) Half-brother of N.K. leader viewed as victim of reign of terror: observers

2017/02/15 00:23

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Feb. 15 (Yonhap) -- The assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother is seen as part of the current leader's move to strengthen his reign of terror with an aim at removing any potential rivals to his iron-fist rule, experts said Wednesday.

Kim Jong-nam, 46, was killed on Monday at an airport in Malaysia after being attacked by two unidentified women, according to a government source.

What could be an assassination by North Korea would mark the most high-profile death under the Kim Jong-un regime since the execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, the once-powerful uncle of the incumbent leader.

South Korea's government refrained from confirming the news, but experts said that his death indicates even the young leader's kin are not immune from becoming the target of his brutal rule as Kim Jong-un is seeking to further reaffirmed his one-man leadership.

"The incident effectively means that the North's leader has removed the last remaining figure who can challenge his power," said Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University.

Kim Jong-nam -- the eldest son of late former leader Kim Jong-il -- was once viewed as an heir apparent to his father. But he had been living in foreign countries for years after falling out of favor with his father for attempting to enter Japan with a fake passport in 2001.

He was critical of the power succession to his stepbrother Kim Jong-un. In 2010, Kim told Japan's TV Asahi that he is "against third-generation succession," although he said he hopes Kim Jong-un will do his best to improve the lives of North Koreans and that he stands ready to help from abroad.

"The assassination must have been ordered by Kim Jong-un. He might have viewed his half-brother as a stumbling block to his move to take a full control of the power," said Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher for the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Since inheriting power from his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011, the North's young leader has propped up his control by executing more than 100 military, party and government officials, according to Seoul's spy agency.

Pyongyang is pumping up efforts to make this year the pinnacle of the personality cult for its current leader as the country is set to mark key anniversaries including this week's 75th birthday of his late father.

In 2016, the North's leader reaffirmed his absolute power by holding two key events which analyst say served as his coronation -- a rare congress by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in May and a parliamentary meeting in June.

On a military front, North Korea has bolstered its nuclear and missile capabilities with its leader Kim saying in his New Year's address that his country has entered the final stage of its preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

"As Kim Jong-un gets closer to consolidation, he narrows the circle of purges," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst at the CNA Corp. in the U.S. "This includes individuals tied to previously critical patronage networks, such as Kim Won-hong (spy chief), as well as side branches within the Kim family like Kim Jong-nam."

   But some experts raised a possibility that Kim might have been killed due to his potential attempt to seek asylum.

"Kim Jong-nam may have sought to defect as the North's regime is believed to have cut off funding for him, making it difficult for him to live in foreign countries," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University. "The assassination could have been conducted to prevent a potential asylum-seeking attempt."

   A North Korean defector who asked not to be named, said that Kim may have been killed as he did not obey Kim Jong-un's order to return home with his son Han-sol.

"Kim Jong-nam is not an imminent threat to the North's leader. His criticism over the North Korean regime does not look threatening," said the defector who was a ranking official in North Korea, citing a source.

He added that Kim did not respond to the leader's summon to come home out of concerns that he would live under tight surveillance and his son would not live freely.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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