North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's elder half-brother, who disappeared from the radar since the execution of former eminence grise Jang Song-taek, has been spotted in Malaysia. The Yomiuri Shimbun on Tuesday 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.
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.
One source said Kim Jong-nam has been staying chiefly in Malaysia since his father's death at Jang's recommendation, with occasional trips to Singapore and China. He is rumored to have secretly visited France last year where his son, Han-sol, is at university.
Another 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.
Jang's nephew and North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia Jang Yong-chol, who was summoned back to Pyongyang in December last year, apparently took care of him there.
There are several North Korean businesses in Singapore and Malaysia trying to earn foreign currency for the isolated regime, most of them were under Jang's ultimate control. One of the companies, 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.
Jang installed his nephew as ambassador to Malaysia to keep close tabs on the businesses. One source said North Korean trading companies in Malaysia covered the operating expenses of the embassy and Jang Yong-chol made regular payments to Kim Jong-nam.
The Yomiuri said Kim Jong-nam used Singapore as his home base while traveling 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 pundits believe Kim Jong-nam is still alive and travels freely because he is being protected by the children of high-ranking Chinese officials.
Malaysia and Singapore may be safe for Kim Jong-nam since Beijing wields considerable clout there. There are rumors 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.
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.