The killing – believed to be at the hands of two female assassins – set off waves of speculation over whether North Korea had dispatched a hit squad to kill a man known for his drinking, gambling and complicated family life.
Kim Jong-nam, who was 45 or 46, was estranged from his younger brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and had been living abroad for years. He fell out of favour when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport in 2001, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
According to senior Malaysian government officials, the elder Kim died en route to a hospital on Monday after suddenly falling ill at the budget terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
He told medical workers before he died that he had been attacked with a chemical spray, the Malaysian officials said. Multiple South Korean media reports, citing unidentified sources, said two women believed to be North Korean agents killed him with some kind of poison before fleeing in a taxi.
Malaysia started an autopsy yesterday to determine the cause of death. But a Malaysian government official said North Korea objected to the procedure because they wanted the body back. The official said the autopsy was still continuing.
Meanwhile, Malaysian police yesterday arrested a woman carrying Vietnamese travel documents bearing the name Doan Thi Huong at the Kuala Lumpur airport budget terminal, where Kim Jong-nam was attacked.
It was not immediately clear whether the passport was genuine. She was identified using earlier surveillance video from the airport, police said.
Still photographs of the video, confirmed as authentic by police, showed a woman in a skirt and long-sleeved white T-shirt with “LOL” written across the front.
Police said they were hunting for more suspects.
Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has executed or purged a number of high-level government officials in what the South Korean government has described as a “reign of terror”.
South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), said yesterday that North Korea had been trying for five years to kill Kim Jong-nam.
The NIS did not definitively say that North Korea was behind the killing, just that it was presumed to be a North Korean operation.
The NIS also cited a “genuine” attempt by North Korea to kill Kim Jong-nam in 2012.
The NIS said Kim Jong-nam sent a letter to Kim Jong-un in April 2012, after the assassination attempt, begging for the lives of himself and his family.
The letter said: “I hope you cancel the order for the punishment of me and my family. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and we know that the only way to escape is committing suicide.”
Details of the Malaysia case were sketchy, but the NIS cited Kim Jong-un’s “paranoia” about his half brother. The NIS has a history of botching intelligence on North Korea and has long sought to portray the country’s leaders as mentally unstable.
Although Kim Jong-nam had been originally tipped by some outsiders as a possible successor to his late dictator father, Kim Jong-il, others thought that was unlikely because he lived outside the country, including recently in Macau. He frequented casinos, five-star hotels and travelled around Asia, with little say in North Korean affairs.