An Assassinated Half-Brother Is More Terrifying than a Missile Test

International Musings

Image from CIA Factbook

In a bizarre turn of events, Kim Jong Nam, the estranged, exiled, and disowned half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, perished in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. The details of his death are lurid, reminiscent of Cold War drama, and with the unique signature of North Korean action that so often hurts their cause as much as help it. After an altercation with two women at the city’s airport, Kim Jong Nam died, believed to be the victim of poisoned needles.

Who was Kim Jong Nam? In short, he was the beloved first-born son of the late Kim Jong-il, educated abroad, struck with a wanderlust that put him at odds with character of the Hermit Kingdom. Indeed, his attraction to foreign things drove a wedge between him and his father and led to the widely-publicized international incident in Japan, where Japanese authorities detained him for using a false passport. Kim Jong Nam’s objective: to take his young son to Tokyo Disneyland. The event embarrassed his father and the North Korean political elite. He was disowned, and split his time between Macau, Singapore, and other parts of China, believed to be under the protection of the Chinese government.

Kim Jong Nam has been in the cross-hairs of his younger brother since the latter took power in 2011, and one suspected plot against him was already foiled by South Korean intelligence. Two questions remain to be answered: who is responsible, and why?

One possible motivation could be removing a member of a dynastic family, an individual under the protection of Chinese political elites and espousing certain values of reform that look attractive to the West, who could ostensibly serve as a replacement in the event of regime change at the hands of China or the United States. Such an event is unlikely, but North Korean paranoia is legendary. Consider the following:

(1) New and improved missile capabilities: the North Koreans recently launch a new version of missile, using solid fuel, with a range suspected to be in the thousands of kilometers. This test is believed to be a prelude to additional missile testing for versions that could strike American territories such as Guam, with an ultimate objective of targeting mainland North America. The response of the Trump administration has been bellicose: Trump issued dark warnings, and Trump, in combination with the warrior-scholar and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, communicate a picture of martial readiness.

(2) The unexpected elimination of a rival, however neutralized that rival might be, bear similarities to September 9, 2001. On that day, the military leader of the Northern Alliance, the last remaining credible resistance to the then-dominant Taliban in Afghanistan, died after suicide bombers, posing as members of the media, detonated explosives and killed him. Many believed his assassination was coordinated with the expected September 11, 2001 terror attacks to consolidate power within a country soon to gain the attention of world’s premier political and military powers.

(3) Trump has departed from the traditional behind-the-scenes discretion of previous administrations in favor of openly challenging Beijing. The Chinese have responded defensively and changed their tactics accordingly. One has to wonder if there was a price for Trump’s acknowledgement of the One China policy, and what that price may have been. I am sure the North Koreans are.

These are musings, as the subtitle indicates. Most likely Kim Jong Nam’s demise was the result of Pyongyang’s paranoid and obsessive leadership, unrelated to anything occurring on the geo-political stage. However, the best case scenario is that the North Koreans have again demonstrated their ability and willingness to engage in violence abroad, in defiance of international norms and decorum, and such an explanation is cold-comfort.