U.S. Officials Believed Kim Jong Un's Dead Half-brother Was Likely a Chinese Asset and 'Ill-suited' to Take Over North Korea: Report

Kim Jong Nam—the assassinated half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—was a CIA source who also probably worked with Chinese intelligence services, say former U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.

According to a new report published by The Wall Street Journal, Kim was working with the CIA when he was killed at an airport in Malaysia in February 2017. However, the unnamed officials who revealed his involvement to the Journal noted that American spies did not consider him of great value as either an intelligence source or a potential replacement for his half-brother.

A person "knowledgeable about the matter" told the Journal that Kim met agency operatives several times before he died. He was killed when two women—who claim they thought they were part of a reality TV prank show—smeared VX nerve agent on his face while he waited for a flight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. American and South Korean officials have both blamed North Korea for the murder, but Pyongyang denies involvement.

The unnamed person said there "was a nexus" between Kim and the CIA, though the exact nature of the relationship remains unclear. It has previously been suggested that Kim had been working with American intelligence agents, though the Journal's report on the supposed relationship is the most detailed to date.

The newspaper spoke to several former American officials who said that Kim's value to intelligence services was likely quite limited, despite his family ties.

The 45-year-old was once heir apparent to father Kim Jong Il, but had mainly lived in the Chinese enclave of Macau since the mid-2000s after falling out of favor with his father. As such, officials believed he had little sway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Un rose to power.

Officials also said that Kim was almost certainly working with other national security services, especially China. Beijing is believed to have maintained a good relationship with Kim, and it was speculated that in the event of a regime collapse in North Korea, China may have sought to install Kim as their chosen candidate to run the country as a client state.

However, the Journal spoke with former U.S. officials who said the CIA believed Kim was not fit to take on such a role.

Kim gained a reputation as somewhat of a playboy when studying abroad, and lost his father's support after being arrested trying to travel to Disneyland in Tokyo on a fake Chinese passport. Kim claimed he fell from grace after gaining a reputation as a reformer, which Kim Jong Il deemed unacceptable.

The Journal report suggested that Kim met his CIA contact during his 2017 visit to Malaysia, though it was not the only objective of the trip.

The two women who carried out the assassination have now been released. The case against one—Indonesian Siti Aisyah—was dropped, while Vietnamese woman Doan Thi Huong was freed in May 2019 having served two-thirds of a conviction for "voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means."

During the women's trial, police said Kim had spent several days on the island of Langkawi, where he met a Korean-American man at a hotel.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, a new book about Kim Jong Un—The Great Successor by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield—includes more information about his half-brother's CIA contacts.

Fifield suggests Kim Jong Nam usually met his handlers in Singapore or Malaysia, and that security footage from his last visit captured him in a hotel elevator with an Asian man, who is believed to have been the CIA contact.

Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Nam, CIA
A man watches a television showing news reports of the death of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul, South Korea, on February 14, 2017. Getty/JUNG YEON-JE/AFP