February 18, 2017 7:45 pm -

Several days ago, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was apparently assassinated inside Kuala Lampur Airport. After several suspects were arrested, the assassination’s bizarre James-Bond-Meets-Jackass back story emerged, along with a bigger question: why would Kim Jong-un wanted to have done this in the first place? A North Korea observer has an answer, and it has everything to do with the collision of neo-Confuscianism with dynastic myth-building and Korean geography:


A desolate but lovely volcano on the North Korea-China border could be the key to unraveling the sudden, mysterious death of an exiled scion of North Korean royalty.

South Korea’s spy agency believes that Kim Jong Nam was assassinated this week in a Malaysian airport as part of a five-year plot by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to kill a brother he reportedly never met. If this is right, the motive likely has more to do with their shared bloodlines — and that volcano — than any specific transgression.

Here’s why:

The volcano — Mount Paektu, which is topped with a deep crater lake — is at the heart of North Korea’s foundation myth, and is used to legitimize the Kim family’s three generations of power. Paektu is emblazoned on the country’s national emblem and lends its name to everything from rockets to power stations to, occasionally, the country itself.

Crucially, it serves as a sort-of geographic incarnation of the Kim brothers’ late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the most important person in North Korean history. Kim Il Sung saved the Korean Peninsula, according to the official Pyongyang narrative, with daring guerrilla raids against Japanese invaders from his base on the slopes of Paektu.

Because the Kim brothers shared the same exalted and heroic lineage — the “blood of Mount Paektu” — the argument goes, no matter how low profile he was, Kim Jong Nam would always pose a danger. As long as he lived he could share, if indirectly and probably unwillingly, in the avalanche of propaganda associated with the sacred volcano, all of which seeks to prove that the Kims are the only governing possibility in North Korea.

This goes a long way to explaining the disconnect between the coldblooded nature of the alleged assassination and the seeming harmlessness of Kim Jong Nam, an overweight gambler and faded playboy who had laid low in recent years in his Southeast Asian base and who once, according to South Korea’s spy agency, wrote his brother a letter begging for his life.


D.B. Hirsch
D.B. Hirsch is a political activist, news junkie, and retired ad copy writer and spin doctor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.