North Korean murder: Did Kim Jong-nam's ties to China play a role?

The half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was assassinated Monday at a Malaysian airport. He lived in the Chinese territory of Macau, and was generally assumed to enjoy China's protection. 

Shizuo Kambayashi, Wong Maye-E/AP/File
These file photos shows Kim Jong-nam, left, exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, in Narita, Japan, on May 4, 2001, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on May 9, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim Jong Nam was targeted on Feb. 13 in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, and later died on the way to the hospital, according to a Malaysian government official.

The apparent murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother by poison-wielding female assassins at a busy Malaysian airport on Monday appears torn from the pages of a cold war spy thriller.

But Kim Jong-nam, the estranged and exiled sibling of dictator Kim Jong-un, would not be the first victim of an international manhunt by Pyongyang’s operatives. And this was reportedly not the first attempt on Mr. Kim’s life.

“The North Korean regime has never balked at eliminating dissent and making sure that alternate power centers do not form at home,” says Christopher Green, a North Korea watcher at Leiden University in The Netherlands. “One aspect of this continuous process is that so-called ‘side branches’ of the Kim family are sent into exile or killed, occasionally one followed by the other.”

Kim, the eldest son of late dictator Kim Jong-il, died Monday after he was poisoned while waiting to board a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Macau, where he had been living quietly in exile under Chinese protection, the South Korean intelligence agency told lawmakers in Seoul.

Two women grabbed Kim from behind and pricked him with a poisoned needle or splashed him with an unknown liquid, according to conflicting news reports. Suspicion immediately fell on the North Korean government, which caused international consternation on Sunday with its latest ballistic missile test.

Malaysian police said Wednesday they detained a woman with Vietnam travel documents in connection with the assassination, and are seeking other foreign suspects, according to Reuters.

Fall from grace

Once tipped as likely to inherit his father’s role, Kim held senior jobs in the 1990s, including head of foreign counter-intelligence.
But he reportedly fell out of favor after he was arrested trying to enter Japan on a fake Dominican Republic passport in 2001, publicly embarrassing the regime. Kim Jong-un, his father’s youngest son, was later groomed for the leadership instead and took power after his father’s death in 2011.

The eldest Kim, whose actress mother was not married to Kim Jong-il, had recently lived discreetly in Macau with his second wife. Though he claimed to have no interest in power at home, he did occasionally criticize North Korea’s totalitarian and dynastic government.

In a 2012 book written by Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi, who exchanged hundreds of emails with Kim, the onetime heir was quoted as saying his younger half-brother had no vision to lead North Korea and that the country would collapse without reform.

Living in the Chinese territory of Macau, Kim was generally assumed to enjoy the protection of the Chinese government, and his government-decreed murder, if that is what Tuesday’s incident proves to be, is a blow to Beijing.

The eldest Kim’s ties to China may also explain his death. Beijing had treated him as a potential future leader of North Korea if the regime in Pyongyang collapsed, says Robert Kelly, a politics professor at Pusan National University. That made Kim a "constant regime leadership replacement threat" to his younger half-brother.

The murder will anger Beijing, says Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University in Seoul. But the Chinese government might be reluctant to punish an allied government whose stability is paramount to its regional interests, he adds.

"Would there be any immediate actionable items for China? I don't think so. It's shocking, but not really new," says Mr. Pinkston. "Kim Jong-un has already demonstrated the willingness to use violence, even against former close associates and family members."

Long list of assassinations

Since coming to power, Kim Jong-un has had more than 140 North Korean officials executed in an effort to eliminate threats to his leadership, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s intelligence agency.

In 2013, the third-generation leader famously had his reformist uncle, Jang Song-thaek, dragged from a party meeting by guards and executed after he was accused in state media of committing “anti-party, counter-revolutionary, factional acts.”

Over the years, Pyongyang has been repeatedly accused of going to extreme lengths to silence adversaries abroad. Lee Han-young, Kim Jong-nam’s cousin and a prominent defector to South Korea, was shot dead near his home in 1997 in what Seoul determined was an assassination directed by Pyongyang.

In 2010, the South Korean police arrested North Korean hit-men, masquerading as defectors, who had planned to kill Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking person ever to defect to the South. The following year, the spy agency announced that it had thwarted a similar scheme against prominent defector and regime critic Park Sang-hak.

While there is broad agreement that Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, if confirmed, could only have been sanctioned by the North Korean leader, there is less certainty about the motive and timing.

On Wednesday, National Intelligence Service director Lee Byung-ho told parliament that Pyongyang had been plotting Kim’s murder since an unsuccessful attempt on his life in 2012 but that he had been protected by China. Mr. Lee, whose agency has a patchy track record with intelligence on the North, said the young dictator had been consumed with paranoia about his half-brother and the supposed threat that he posed.

It is also thought that authorities in the North may have been angered by a recent news report suggesting that Kim had planned to defect to South Korea.

The elder Kim was not thought to have had any significant involvement or influence in North Korean affairs for years and it is unclear why he should have been considered a grave-enough threat to the regime to eliminate him.

“I think it is Kim Jong-un telling the world that there is no chance of regime change,” says Uk Yang, an advisor to South Korea’s Defense Ministry, who sees the killing as a message to the international community. “I'll complete the development of nukes, and I'll remain as leader no matter what.”

Mr. Green believes the sudden killing could hint at events behind the scenes that may never be revealed.

“If indeed it was North Korean agents or contracted killers who assassinated Kim,” he says, “it is quite likely that it was done in response to an actual or impending material change in Kim Jong-nam's circumstances.”

What that might have been, however, like so much else in North Korea, is still a mystery.

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