When he was stretchered to an ambulance, paramedics discerned a faltering heartbeat. He had lasted little more than 15 minutes after the poisoning.Earlier in his life, Jong-nam often had bodyguards watching his back, but his fall from privilege had been abrupt.
Shortly thereafter, Jong-nam critiqued his younger brother's ascension in an e-mail to a Japanese journalist, calling him a “joke to the outside world” and echoing the doubts that many in the international community harbored about the new 27-year-old despot. He ducked another attempt in 2012, the same year he sent a letter to Jong-un, begging, “Please withdraw the order to punish me and my family. The only way to escape is to choose suicide.”After Jong-nam's death at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, it initially appeared that “Kim Chol”—as he was identified on his diplomatic passport, the Korean equivalent of “John Smith”—had died of a heart attack.He predicted, “The Kim Jong-un regime will not last long.”But Jong-un unhesitatingly displayed the ruthlessness of a natural-born tyrant: He had his mentor and main rival—his uncle—killed, reportedly used anti-aircraft guns to execute disloyal officials, and aggressively developed nuclear missiles capable of striking America. Malaysian authorities didn't have a clue about the nerve agent, nor did they know they were dealing with a person of geopolitical importance.Jong-nam started toward the bathroom—and then lost his only chance to wash off the poison and survive when he rerouted to a nearby information desk.There, he moaned in English, “Very painful, very painful, I was sprayed liquid.” By the time an attendant led him to three policemen, who were chatting rather than monitoring the crowds, he could only groan incoherently as he jabbed at his face with both hands.Who would succeed Jong-il remained hazy even after he suffered a stroke in 2008.
But those questions began to resolve themselves in 2010, when Jong-un, the youngest son, was named to high military and political posts, passing over a middle son long regarded by his father as effeminate.
America and China would have debated how to manage him.
Right out in the open, using deadly chemical weapons in an international airport. His pudgy finger would have caressed the launch buttons of nukes.
In the fluorescently lit clinic, he collapsed into a black pleather chair.
His indigo T-shirt rode up his belly, and a golden pendant, digitally engraved with a portrait of his wife and son, surfed his heaving chest as he labored to breathe. As his lungs contracted, never relaxing to allow air out, nurses fixed him to an oxygen tank.
The liquid was VX, a chemical weapon that the CDC calls the “most potent of all nerve agents” and that the United Nations classifies as a weapon of mass destruction.