North Korea’s ruler routinely assassinates his enemies. But it’s their nukes we should really worry about


North Korea’s ruler routinely assassinates his enemies. But it’s their nukes we should really worry about

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The Telegraph, 14 February, 2017

The scene plays exactly like a Cold War thriller. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is quiet at 8am on a Monday. Two women step behind a middle-aged Korean man pushing a luggage cart, and while one distracts him with a cloth over his face, the other presses a needle into his arm. Then, as he is reeling, they dart off. They have flagged a taxi – likely an accomplice – and are off into traffic before anyone can react to what has just occurred.

Kim Jong Nam, the son of feared ruler Kim Jong-il, and one-time heir apparent, has just been assassinated. The likely culprit is, of course, Kim Jong-un, his step-brother and the current ruler of hardest of hard authoritarian regimes. But why now? Why after years of letting his brother live has he decided to have him killed? And does it have anything to do with last week’s missile test, carried out while Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting President Donald Trump?

The scene plays exactly like a Cold War thriller. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is quiet at 8am on a Monday. Two women step behind a middle-aged Korean man pushing a luggage cart, and while one distracts him with a cloth over his face, the other presses a needle into his arm. Then, as he is reeling, they dart off. They have flagged a taxi – likely an accomplice – and are off into traffic before anyone can react to what has just occurred.

According to one anonymous South Korean diplomat, close to North Korean issues, his death was probably long in the works. After all, in 2012 he had called North Korea’s dynastic succession “a joke to the rest of the world” and had predicted the end of the regime under Kim Jung-un in comments to a Japanese journalist, Yoji Gomi. The source said, “it was probably just his time,” and when asked if the timing related to the missile test, responded: “Maybe Trump is a factor, however North Korea is always driven by its need for internal security.”

This hyper-intense need for security and regime survival has prompted North Korean rulers to use political assassination on quite a few occasions in the past. Often these acts have taken place at home and reveal Byzantine struggles for power between Kim Jong-un and various senior officials who rose to power under his father. Many senior officials have died in “accidents” while driving on North Korea’s empty roads. Kim Yang-gon, a Secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, died in 2015; Ri Je-gang, first vice department director of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, died in 2010; and Ri Chol-bong, Chief Secretary of the Worker’s Party’s Kangwon Provincial committee, died this way in 2009.

The last assassination of a North Korean abroad may have been that of Hwang Jang-yop, the most senior North Korean government official to defect to the South. Found drowned in his bath in Seoul on the 10th of October, 2010 – incidentally, the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party – his death is still classified an accident by the South Korean police. However, the auspicious timing and fact that various attempts on his life had been made before casts some doubt on this.

North Korea has already been in the news this month after firing a Pukguksong-2 (or Polaris 2) medium- to long-range ballistic missile from a mobile delivery system into the Sea of Japan, an event which coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States. That gave Abe and President Trump an opportunity to demonstrate unity, with Abe calling the launch “intolerable” and Trump asserting US support of Japan “100 percent”. However, behind such theatrics, the new administration is desperately carrying out a review of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy, a much-maligned approach that was originally meant to allow North Korea’s internal economic contradictions catch up with it.

Pyongyang’s success in developing a long-range nuclear delivery system, capable of hitting the continental US is putting pressure on the process. In a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in late January, Korea expert Scott Snyder declared: “Kim Jong-un has decided, based on lessons from Iran, Iraq, and Libya, that North Korea must be too nuclear to fail. Moreover, he intends to threaten the United States with a direct nuclear strike capability.” One could also see this in the tone of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a UN session on February 13th. She fired off a veiled criticism of China in her remarks in the consultations room, calling on North Korea’s “enablers” to ensure that sanctions were fully implemented.

While it is too soon to know if the new policy will focus on China’s relationship with North Korea, the stakes are high. In early January, the Washington Post speculated that Victor Cha, a former North Korea expert in George Bush’s administration. would be appointed to Trump’s. In his 2012 book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, he asserts: “The next US President will have to deal with a major crisis in North Korea, and potentially unification, before he or she leaves office.” 

Whether or not this occurs – North Korea remains, after all, unpredictable – the world will have to put the country at the top of its list of “things to worry about”.

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