The body of Kim Jong Un’s murdered half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, and two North Korean suspects previously held on suspicion of participating in the attack are being flown back to North Korea, signaling that the Kim Jong Nam saga may be coming to a close. The departures come 45 days after Kim was assassinated with VX poison gas at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
The episode saw the dispatch of a high-ranking North Korean delegation, a stubborn refusal by North Korea to permit Malaysian nationals from leaving North Korea (which was reciprocated in kind), and attempts by the North Korean regime to thwart Malaysia’s investigation of the crime. Through the incident, the entire international community gained greater insight into the nature of the North Korean government.
North Korea’s relationship with Malaysia has soured in the aftermath of the incident, with the visa-free travel agreement between the two countries abruptly suspended. However, the mission is likely to be viewed as a partial success from Pyongyang’s perspective.
The assassination has enhanced Kim Jong Un’s grip on power by removing a potential rival, even if the stabilizing effects prove temporary. According to South Korean intelligence, Kim Jong Un first ordered the assassination of his half-brother five years ago.
Since Kim Jong Nam was Kim Jong Il’s oldest son, some analysts have speculated that Kim Jong Un may have felt that his legitimacy was threatened. In traditional Korean culture, the eldest son is perceived to be the natural heir to the throne and the proper continuation of the Mount Paektu bloodline. Some analysts also believe that Kim Jong Un may have heard rumors that China was planning to institute regime change by installing Kim Jong Nam is his place.
In truth, after Kim Jong Nam was passed over for the country’s top leadership position, he spent time drifting between countries. No hard evidence has indicated that he was jockeying to replace his younger half-brother. But Kim Jong Nam’s very existence (and possibly his alleged refusal to return home) was likely to be perceived as a threat.
“It seems that Kim Jong Nam’s existence was a form of psychological pressure for Kim Jong Un,” said Korea Advancement Solidarity’s Director Kim Kwang In. “Because Kim Jong Nam represented a source of potential instability and weakness for Kim Jong Un’s hold on power, the assassination likely brings him some sense of comfort.”
However, many believe that the assassination may eventually be detrimental for the regime, and end up fostering greater instability.
For his entire life, the North Korean authorities have made painstaking efforts to hide Kim Jong Nam’s existence from the North Korean people. As news of the assassination made international headlines, residents have learned about Kim Jong Nam’s background, with some likely to question the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s rule. This is also in line with efforts to conceal Kim Jong Un’s birthdate and the identity of his mother, Ko Yong Hui, who was Kim Jong Il’s consort rather than his first wife.
In the meantime, rumors of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination have crossed the Sino-North Korean border and reached inland to regions as far as Pyongyang, according to inside sources contacted by Daily NK. In order to block the news from spreading, the North Korean authorities are tightening up surveillance and control in the border regions, but this has had limited effect.
When asked about this development, Director Kim said, “Even looking at the Kim Jong Nam assassination objectively, there are more losses for the regime than gains. The North Korean people and cadres have all become aware of Kim Jong Nam’s existence, and this will ultimately lead to further instability for the regime.”
Witnessing Kim Jong Un’s willingness to kill even his own brother will no doubt instigate a loss of respect towards the regime among party cadres and ordinary residents alike. Party cadres have already witnessed the brutal purge of scores of high-ranking officials, hinting that nobody is safe. Some observers believe that this will lead to more defections from top level officials wary of the precariousness of their personal safety.
A former high-level diplomat turned defector spoke on condition of anonymity with Daily NK, saying, “What kind of person is going to think that the regime is stable when they see the leader go after his own flesh and blood by executing Jang Song Thaek and assassinating Kim Jong Nam? Cadres will begin to question whether their own positions are safe. They might conclude that it’s better to pursue the risky goal of defecting from the country rather than staying around to see what happens.”
“North Korean diplomats who are stationed overseas are no doubt feeling extremely embarrassed as they see their country being labeled as an international villain over the incident. Aside from the assassination, North Korea’s position in the world is suffering because of the country’s continued missile and nuclear tests. Rather than endure this international criticism, it’s possible that more and more cadres will elect to flee the country, throwing away their North Korean citizenship,” the former diplomat continued.
Due to the method of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, concern has grown amongst the international community about North Korea’s possession of chemical and biological weapons, and its complete disregard for international norms. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution by consensus urging North Korea to halt its overseas crimes and human rights abuses. In addition, both houses of the US Congress are considering whether to redesignate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The fact that North Korea was able to use negotiations with Malaysia to secure the return of Kim Jong Nam’s body and the release of two of its nationals suspected of involvement might be hailed by some as a diplomatic victory for Pyongyang. However, North Korea’s position in Southeast Asia will likely take a hit. It is difficult to foresee North Korea being able to fully restore its relations with Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations.
In particular, there are some observers who believe that it was a mistake for North Korea to recruit Indonesian and Vietnamese females to participate in the attack. Indonesia and Vietnam, along with other Southeast Asian states, had retained friendly relations with the North, but this event has put a strain on those relationships.
In the long term, the assassination is likely to hurt North Korea’s diplomatic interests as well as negatively impact the regime’s hold on power.
The North Korean nationals held as suspects in relation to the incident were transferred to Pyongyang via Beijing on March 31. Kim Jong Nam’s body was also flown to Pyongyang on an Air China flight that passed through Beijing.