World Asia Pacific Briefing

North Korea: weighing ripple effects of the murder of Kim Jong-un's half brother

The murder of Kim Jong-nam is already having an impact on the North's relations with China and Malaysia, whose ties are crucial to the isolated regime. 

Police officers patrol outside the forensic department at Kuala Lumpur Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.
Daniel Chan/AP
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The Feb. 13 killing of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has fueled growing concerns about the country’s regime. Here’s a look at what happened and the potential repercussions. 

How did the killing happen?

Surveillance video of a crowded airport terminal in Malaysia appears to show a woman in a white shirt coming up behind Kim Jong-nam and rubbing something across his face. Local authorities say an unidentified poison took effect quickly and that he died on the way to a hospital.

Malaysian authorities have so far arrested four people and are hunting for seven others, including four North Koreans who left the country the day of the attack. On Feb. 20, South Korea’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, called the killing “an intolerable crime against humanity and terrorist act” that was masterminded by the North Korean regime.

And on Feb. 15, South Korea’s spy agency said Kim Jong-un issued a “standing order” to murder his brother when he assumed power in late 2011. Lee Byung-ho, the agency’s chief, said North Korean agents tried to kill the brother at least once before, according to South Korean media reports. 

What would Kim Jong-un have against his half brother? 

Mr. Lee said Kim Jong-nam hadn’t tried to gain asylum in South Korea, and he didn’t know of any attempts to depose Kim Jong-un. Still, Kim Jong-nam was the only member of the North’s ruling family known to support political and economic reforms. He also publicly criticized the country’s dynastic approach to transferring power.

Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of and onetime heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader who died in 2011. He was estranged from his family and had been living abroad for years. He reportedly lost favor with the North’s leadership after he was caught in 2001 trying to use a falsified passport to enter Japan; he said he’d planned to go to Tokyo Disneyland.

An erratic leader, Kim Jong-un is believed to have purged more than 100 officials as he has pushed to consolidate power. In 2013, he ordered the execution of his uncle, once considered the country’s second-most powerful man, for what the North alleged was treason. South Korean officials and North Korean defectors have described his deadly campaign as a “reign of terror.” 

How does China fit into the picture?

China is North Korea’s only political ally and provides an economic lifeline to the isolated country. Beijing’s official reaction to the killing of Kim Jong-nam has been muted. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said at a regular news briefing Feb. 17 that it would “keep following the developments of the incident.”

But behind the scenes, Chinese leaders may have cause for concern. Some observers have speculated that the killing may have angered Beijing because Kim Jong-nam was considered a pro-Chinese prospect who could replace his younger brother should the brother’s regime collapse. He had been living in the Chinese-controlled territory of Macau for years.

Others say Chinese officials had long realized Kim Jong-nam’s lack of leadership potential. For them, his killing was no more than a cruel reminder of how unpredictable the North Korean regime is.

The killing comes at an uncomfortable time for Beijing. It occurred a day after North Korea test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile, a provocation that led China to suspend all imports of coal from its troublesome neighbor. Last year the North stepped up such military activity, with two nuclear tests as well as tests of 24 ballistic missiles, according to a tally by 38 North, a website providing analysis on North Korea.

“This year is crucial for North Korea nuclear issues,” says Wang Dong, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University. He warns that the situation faces “sharp deterioration” and urges the United States and China to work closely in trying to stabilize it. 

What about North Korea-Malaysia relations?

The killing has raised tensions between the two countries. Malaysia’s decision to carry out an autopsy and refusal to hand over the body directly to North Korea prompted Kang Chol, North Korea’s ambassador, to accuse Malaysia of “trying to conceal something” and aiming to “besmirch” the North.

Malaysia has recalled its envoy from Pyongyang and summoned Mr. Kang to explain his remarks, which the Malaysian government called 'baseless.' So far, Kim Jong-nam’s family members have not stepped forward to claim the body.

The fallout over the investigation puts North Korea at risk of becoming even more isolated globally. Malaysia is one of a shrinking number of countries with which North Korea has diplomatic ties. It has 53 embassies and other foreign missions, Reuters reports, citing South Korea government data.

Xie Yujuan contributed reporting from Beijing.