It has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood spy film.

An exiled son is killed in the middle of a busy airport while rumours swirl surrounding his potential killer, or killers, and whether it was orchestrated by his very own government.

News that the eldest brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is dead sent fingers automatically pointing back at the regime.

Regarded as the Kim family's troublesome playboy brother, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at an airport in Malaysia on Monday, a senior official confirmed to AFP.

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He was reportedly sprayed with a liquid in the shopping concourse of Kuala Lumpur's airport and sought help at an information counter, complaining of pain and stinging eyes.

Multiple South Korean media reports, citing unidentified sources, said Kim Jong-nam was killed by two women believed to be North Korean agents who fled in a taxi.

District police chief Abdul Aziz Ali confirmed the man, later named as Kim Jong-nam but travelling under the name of Kim Chol, was waiting for a flight to Macau at the time.

But who is Kim Jong-nam, and why is his death important?

THE FALLEN SON

Born in 1971, Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of then-leader Kim Jong-il and actress Song Hye-rim.

He is the half brother of Kim Jong-un, who shares the same father.

Not a lot is known about the eldest Kim and his upbringing but it is believed his grandfather and founding president Kim Il-sung disapproved of his son's relationship with Kim Jong-nam's mother, according to the Washington Post.

Kim Jong-nam left North Korea in 1979 and lived with his grandmother in Moscow but attended international schools in Russia and Switzerland before returning home in 1988.

But things turned sour in 2001 when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport, revealing he wanted to visit Disneyland.

Using a Chinese alias that translated "fat bear", the move was widely seen as an embarrassment to his father and pushed him further out of favour.

It is understood he lived in Macau for some time, but also had homes in Beijing and Singapore.

A TV screen shows pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his older brother Kim Jong-nam, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo / AP
A TV screen shows pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his older brother Kim Jong-nam, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo / AP

WHY HE HAD TO GO

Although there was little evidence that Kim Jong-nam was plotting against the North Korean leader, he provided an alternative for those who would want to see the current leader gone.

Exiled from the country by his father, he lived in Macau until his father died in 2011, according to UK newspaper The Telegraph.

However, Kim Jong-nam soon went into hiding reportedly out of fear that his own half-brother saw him as a direct threat to legitimacy of his regime.

According to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Kim Jong-nam had previously worked for North Korea's foreign ministry where his focus was on resolving disputes with Tokyo.

Kim Jong-nam was apparently given the role by his leader brother as a way of keeping his enemies close.

In an interview in 2015, Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University told The Telegraph he believed this move was strategic in more ways than one.

This photo taken in 1981 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sitting with his son, Jong-nam (sitting-right), Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang (top left), Sung's daughter Lee Nam-Ok (centre top) and son Lee Il-Nam (top right). Photo / Getty Images
This photo taken in 1981 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sitting with his son, Jong-nam (sitting-right), Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang (top left), Sung's daughter Lee Nam-Ok (centre top) and son Lee Il-Nam (top right). Photo / Getty Images

"I expect Kim Jong-un summoned Kim Jong-nam back to Pyongyang and gave him a job as he is still relatively weak and feared that other factions might support Kim Jong-nam," the professor said.

"It is also possible that China is looking for an alternative North Korean leader and could have thrown their support behind another member of the Kim family."

Mark Tokola, vice president at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said it would be surprising if Kim Jong-nam was not killed on the orders of his brother, given that North Korean agents have reportedly tried to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in the past.

"It seems probable that the motivation for the murder was a continuing sense of paranoia on the part of Kim Jong-un, which may be a well-placed paranoia," Mr Tokola wrote in a commentary.

A NATURAL LEADER?

But while many assumed as the eldest son, he was the natural heir apparent, Kim Jong-un's aunt told The Washington Post last year that wasn't the case at all.

According to Ko Yong Suk the current leader was chosen as successor in the early 1990s, when he was only eight years old.

In an interview with Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun Kim Jong-nam admitted he had become distant from his father,

Kim Jong-nam is the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo / AP
Kim Jong-nam is the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo / AP

"After I went back to North Korea following my education in Switzerland, I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and market-opening and was eventually viewed with suspicion," he said.

However in a 2012 book, My Father, Kim Jong-il and Me, he was quoted as saying his younger half-brother lacked leadership qualities, the BBC reveals.

Many hoped the elder Kim would bring reform to a country which had been ruled by the same family for generations.

In an interview given to Japanese media in 2010, the reclusive Kim Jong-nam spoke of how he was opposed to hereditary succession, telling broadcaster Asahi he wasn't up for the top job.

"Personally I am against third-generation succession," he said.

"I hope my younger brother will do his best for the sake of North Koreans' prosperous lives."

ATTEMPTS ON LIFE

If it is proved Kim Jong-nam was murdered, it wouldn't be the first time an attempt was made on his life.

According to The Telegraph, in 2011 he survived an assassination attempt in Macau.

The following year, a North Korean spy was jailed in South Korea after he admitted trying to organise a hit-and-run targeting Kim Jong-nam.

While the most likely explanation for the killing was that Kim Jong-un was removing a potential challenger to North Korean leadership within his own family, it could also be about sending a warning to North Korean officials to demonstrate the reach of his regime.

Evans Revere, a former US diplomat and specialist on East Asia, said the killing did not mean the North Korean regime was unstable but rather showed Kim Jong-un's brutal control and ability to eliminate opponents or perceived opponents.

But Victor Cha, a former White House director for Asian affairs, disagreed.

"He sacks the minister of state security last month and now kills the elder brother. Doesn't look so stable to me," Mr Cha said.

INTERNATIONAL PLAYBOY

According to the BBC, the eldest Kim was a fan of poker machines in Macau, with the Chinese territory being famous for gambling.

But the slot machines were not his only vice.

Kim Jong-nam also apparently had a way with the ladies and was said to enjoy the women in Macau, GQ reveals.

"Jong-nam was the only Kim family member to speak with foreign media, and the closest the country ever had to an international playboy," writer Nimrod Kamer reports.

Kim Jong-nam (right) the eldest son of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, walks out of a police van to board a plane to Beijing at Narita International. Photo / AP
Kim Jong-nam (right) the eldest son of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, walks out of a police van to board a plane to Beijing at Narita International. Photo / AP

South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo reported that Kim Jong-nam had two wives, at least one mistress, and several children.

His first wife, Shin Jong-hui, is said to live in the northern outskirts of Beijing. His second wife, Lee Hye-kyong and their son Han-sol and their daughter Sol-hui, reportedly live in a modest 12-storey apartment building in Macau. His mistress, former Air China flight attendant Chen Jia-Xi, also lives in Macau.

HIDING IN MALAYSIA

Kim Jong-nam went into hiding in Malaysia after the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, according to The Sun.

It is understood he was close to his uncle, who was North Korea's second most powerful man before being executed on Kim Jong-un's orders in 2013.

The year before, Kim Jong-nam reportedly said that the Chinese government was monitoring him and spoke about his fate.

"The Chinese government is protecting me, but it is also monitoring me, too. It's my inevitable fate," he said. "If you can't avoid it, it's better to enjoy it."

- with AFP and AP