By James Pomfret
MACAU (Reuters) – Before he was killed in Malaysia, Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, lived quietly in the Asian gambling hub of Macau, avoiding controversy and seemingly relaxed about personal safety, according to sources close to him.
One veteran casino industry source, who has known him for over a decade, said he last met the affable, portly Kim at the Four Seasons Hotel in Macau last month, when he was eating cake and having a drink in the lobby coffee shop.
“I often saw him by himself. He never seemed to have bodyguards,” said the source who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter. “He didn’t seem nervous at all.”
Five years ago, Kim Jong Nam pleaded with his half-brother, Kim Jong Un, to withdraw a standing order for his assassination, according to the South Korean intelligence agency.
Some analysts have said Kim Jong Un believed his brother could be used in any overthrow of his regime. An attempt was made on Kim Jong Nam’s life in 2012, after which he did not stay long in any place, and traveled frequently between various cities in Southeast Asia and China.
U.S. and South Korean government sources said they believed North Korean agents murdered Kim Jong Nam at an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.
A source with ties to top officials in Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters that North Korea was not behind the killing.
“Kim Jong Nam has nothing to do with (North) Korea,” the source said. “There is no reason for (North) Korea to kill him.”
Friends in Macau, where he spent much of his time, said Kim Jong Nam was an outwardly relaxed man, often casually dressed, sometimes in jeans and sandals, and carried a Louis Vuitton shoulder satchel. He had a striking dragon tattoo on his back according to a source who went to the gym with Kim.
According to South Korea’s spy agency, Kim had lived under the protection of Chinese authorities in the China-ruled territory, with at least one of his known wives and two of his children.
A Facebook page under the name Kim Chol, which appears to be his, includes friends from numerous countries including France, Singapore and Switzerland and photos of Kim in various locales including Macau and Shanghai, as well as pictures of dogs.
Kim Chol was the name on the passport Kim Jong Nam used to travel to Malaysia, according to authorities there.
“I miss Europe,” he posted next to a 2008 picture of himself and a man standing on a yacht. “Living Las Vegas in Asia,” he posted in 2010.
His “likes” include French musician Serge Gainsbourg and two bars in Singapore, including one called Girls Bar Kimidori. He also “liked” Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Kim Jong Un impersonator calling himself Kim Jong “Um”.
According to the casino source and another Macanese businessman who had known him for years, Kim dabbled in business ventures in Macau including a Japanese restaurant called Gold Japanese Cuisine that closed last year.
The Chinese character for “gold” on the restaurant sign was the same character used to depict the word Kim.
The place, along a harbour-front boulevard, was shuttered, the metal grill stuffed with envelopes that included bank statements and electricity bills.
One notice above the door said power had been disconnected last March 15 due to “payment failure”.
It wasn’t possible to verify Kim’s ownership in the restaurant with an initial search for companies registered under Kim’s name and one known alias showing up no records at Macau’s Commercial Registry Office.
One longtime business associate said some of Kim’s family in Macau, including an adult son, were now under enhanced security.
“It’s very sensitive now,” said the Macanese businessman who claims he also once had trade dealings with Kim’s father.
“His family is under police protection, especially the son. I’m afraid he might be targeted. Anything is possible.”
At a sprawling middle class residential development on Macau’s Taipa island called Ocean Garden, a policeman was stationed outside one of the blocks where a resident and a security guard said Kim’s family now live. For several hours on Wednesday evening, four police vehicles and around a dozen officers, some armed, were nearby.
Macau authorities said in a statement in response to inquiries about Kim and his family that they were monitoring developments closely.
While Kim was once known to enjoy a lavish lifestyle with extended stays in hotel suites, a love of fine French wine and gourmet cuisine, according to people who socialized with him in the past, he seemed to have cut back on his spending recently.
His family in Macau had moved several times, first from an oceanfront villa to two modest residential high rises on Taipa island.
“He often just queued for taxis. It’s crazy that someone like him had to do that … He seemed careful with his money,” said the casino executive.
He liked the occasional flutter in the casinos, however, and was seen recently on the gaming floors of the Wynn Macau and the Four Seasons, according to a second casino source.
“He wasn’t a big gambler but liked betting a few thousand (Hong Kong dollars) each time, mostly baccarat. He would just drift around the tables watching mostly, then suddenly put down a bet.”
(Additional reporting by Pak Yiu in MACAU and Ju-min Park in SEOUL; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)