His Spirit Stays Alive: a North Korean Refugee's Reaction to the Assassination of Kim Jong-nam

Kim Jong-nam in May 2001. Source: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

By Tom Norris, Contributing Writer

The motives behind the murder of Kim Jong-nam are being discussed all around the world but, within the North Korean refugee community, the assassination has provoked an entirely different reaction. To refugees like Mark Kim, the assassination was more than a singular act of terror, it was a wider attack on the refugee community. And while the murder of Kim Jong-nam reminded refugees that their lives are subject to the cold calculations of the regime, in Mark’s view, it did not end hope for change in North Korea- as Kim Jong-nam’s spirit stays alive.

Kim Jong-nam, was not a typical North Korean exile. As Mark points out, his first foiled escape was not a swim across the Yalu River under the cover of darkness but rather a visit to Tokyo Disneyland under the cover of a Dominican Republic passport. Once out of North Korea, Kim Jong-nam did not face the usual obstacles for a refugee either. Far from adapting to a new life at the bottom of society’s totem pole, Kim Jong-nam lived a millionaire’s lifestyle in Macau, where he was often seen in nightclubs and casinos.

But despite the man’s playboy reputation and princely upbringing, Mark insists that Kim Jong-nam was a relatable figure to many North Korean refugees. Although his motivations were certainly incomparable, Mark believes that Kim Jong-nam “felt a similar need to see the outside”. And that, like himself, once Kim Jong-nam “experienced freedom and capitalism, he became addicted and didn’t want to go back”.

Like other North Koreans in exile, Kim Jong-nam was critical of the North Korean government, calling for economic reforms and an opening of the country. To North Korean refugees and to North Koreans living along the Chinese border with access to news, Kim Jong-nam’s calls for reform and rejection of his half-brother’s regime were a source of hope. And, to those most vocal about their disapproval of the Kim regime, Kim Jong-nam was even something of an inspiration. However, his death proved to the refugee community just how easily the regime can silence such dissent.

Mark believes that Kim Jong-nam’s assassination was not a sudden event and that Kim Jong-nam’s murder should be seen as a final step of the regime’s tactical response to dissent. A response strategy that, according to Mark, all North Korean refugees are potentially subject to. Prominent members of the refugee community, especially those most vocal about North Korea’s human rights abuses, have previously been spied upon and their remaining family members in North Korea targeted for punishment. As Mark explains, these dangers are fully understood by the refugee community but now, with Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, dissidents are even more acutely aware of the lengths the regime will go to silence their criticism.

Kim Jong-nam may have been seen by the world as more of a reject than a refugee. Nevertheless, his vision for a reformed North Korea strongly resonated with the North Korean refugee community and his acts of dissention served as inspiration for others to do the same. He is now the latest victim of the Kim regime but his hope for an open North Korea is not extinguished with his death. It lives on with Mark and all other North Koreans who dream of a better future for their country.