The assassination last week of Kim Jong Nam, the older half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, puts a human face on the wrongdoings of the Pyongyang government. The Kim regime has flagrantly and wantonly disregarded international rules, but those acts have been, in recent years at least, abstract and distant from the lives of most people. Even residents of Seoul, who live within range of North Korean artillery, go about their daily business without much concern for the potential effect of the threats from the North. Kim Jong Nam’s murder is a reminder that the North Korean government at its essence is — literally — a murderous regime and must be treated as such.
Kim Jong Nam’s mother was reported to have been one of Kim Jong Il’s favorite mistresses, but because Kim Il Sung, Jong Il’s father and North Korea’s founding leader, disapproved, Jong Nam was kept out of the public eye for years. Later he was reputed to be the heir apparent to Jong Il until 2001, when he was detained by Japanese immigration officials as he tried to enter the country under a false passport; he reportedly wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. That incident embarrassed the Pyongyang leadership and Jong Nam went into exile, living first in Beijing and then in Macau.
Since then, he became an increasingly — albeit reluctant — public figure, accosted by journalists in airports and periodically offering views on developments in his homeland. While his interpretation of goings-on in Pyongyang was informed by his upbringing and connections, Jong Nam had limited actual time in North Korea. His thoughts about North Korea became increasingly critical. He denounced ‘”dynastic succession” even before his father died, and when his half brother took over, he questioned his ability to stay in power, warning that the country would collapse without reform and that Jong Un would be a puppet of the ruling elite. He was not unconcerned about the consequences of such statements, however, and with good reason. A North Korean spy admitted he had been sent to attack Jong Nam. He reportedly wrote his half brother asking him to spare him and his family from retribution.
Jong Nam may have thought that he had limited immunity and was protected by China. The Beijing government seeks to maximize its influence in North Korea, and to discourage the most blatant forms of adventurism and destabilizing behavior by Pyongyang. Jong Nam was a communication channel into and out of Pyongyang, and a potential conduit to make the case for reforms that China believes would help the North Korean economy and moderate its behavior. For some, Jong Nam might have even been a replacement for Kim Jong Un. At a minimum, an attack against him on Chinese territory would be seen as a violation of Chinese sovereignty and disrespect and disregard for Chinese concerns. That might explain why the attack occurred in Kuala Lumpur.
There is much that is unknown about the killing, although the details that have been released — in particular, the claim that one of the alleged assassins thought it was “a game show prank” — beggar belief. Nevertheless, is it virtually certain that the order for the killing came from the top leadership in Pyongyang. While Kim Jong Un’s rule has been marked by the purge or execution of numerous high officials — including Jang Song Thaek, Jong Un’s uncle, the former No. 2 in the power structure and someone reportedly close to China — it is hard to believe that anyone in that government would kill a close relative of a tyrannical leader without an order.
In the aftermath of the killing, Beijing announced that it would freeze all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year. This follows China’s refusal to accept a shipment of coal from the North two days after a missile test on Feb. 12. This a blow to North Korea since the country conducts 90 percent of its trade with China, coal is its No. 1 export and the resource makes up 35 percent of the North’s economy. A more complete shutdown of trade between the two countries would do great damage to the North.
Hawks insist that China is key to forcing Pyongyang to negotiate seriously about its nuclear and missile programs and this hard line is overdue. While China has influence in Pyongyang and can force the leadership to face unpleasant realities, caution is in order. China can hurt North Korea but it cannot bend Pyongyang to its will. Moreover, China is not ready to squeeze the North so hard that it risks instability on its border. China wants a stable environment to promote its own development and for all its unease about Pyongyang, it prefers a buffer state to a unified Korea under Seoul and allied to the United States.
The murder of Kim Jong Nam, while embarrassing and irritating, is not going to change Chinese calculations. For South Koreans, however, it personalizes the brutalities of a regime to which they have become accustomed. Older South Koreans were accustomed to these outrages; for a younger generation it is a reminder of what North Korea can do and why it must be contained.
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