North Korea’s young ruler, Kim Jong Un, has hit another home run. He was on the front pages of most of the world’s newspapers and led the TV and radio headlines only a week or so after his previous performance. Much of the world’s media carried stories suggesting that Kim Jong Un decided that he had one too many half-brothers. He decided that his country and the rest of the world would be better off with just one male Kim of his generation. Toward this end, he had Kim Jong Nam eliminated. In North Korea, what Kim wants, Kim gets.
Despite the power he has accumulated, Kim is an insecure, even paranoid, ruler. He appears to see danger to his authority everywhere. Major North Korean officials are done away with regularly. What is notable is that a large number of them were close relatives. Uncles, half-brothers and other relatives — no matter how distant — may find themselves at a high level party meeting where they are honored and removed. One of Kim’s uncles was strapped to a wall and shredded by a large shell fired from an appropriately large gun. Some observers think the present Kim is on his way to becoming the bloodiest of the Kim dynasty (his father and grandfather before him).
Yet Kim Jong Un is the one who went to school in the West and presumably absorbed Western values and ideas. It appears that the primary result of Kim’s education in Switzerland was to convince him of the value of a life full of night clubs.
Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s late half-brother, had sought to lessen his own danger by living outside of his homeland. Recently he had lived in Macau, where he had been part-owner of a restaurant. The restaurant closed last year with many unpaid debts. As a result of threats to his person, Nam’s family feared for their safety. One source claimed that the whole family, especially his son, is under enhanced security. Police are stationed outside of his apartment in a modest residential high rise on Taipa Island. One source said Kim Jong Nam seemed to have moved away from the lavish lifestyle he once lived.
Malaysian officials have said little about the cause of Kim Jong Nam’s death. One report said he was sprayed in the face with a toxic chemical. Another says women rubbed his face with their hands after poison had been applied to them. He was standing at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, when one or two young women — reportedly from North Korea — approached and attacked him.
One obvious question is where were his protectors? How could this have been pulled off in a busy airport? While police claim they are not certain who was behind this killing, it fits a North Korean profile. North Koreans have killed numerous defectors — and Kim Jong Nam was a presumptive successor to his half-brother.
While Malaysian authorities were providing some protection, there are indications that the Chinese were also involved in protecting Kim Jong Nam. There are reports that they accompanied him wherever he went and that they had made it clear to Pyongyang that he was under Beijing’s protection. But apparently not at the time he was attacked. Why?
Beijing considered Kim Jong Nam a potential substitute for Kim Jong Un should he be ousted. Given his unpredictability, the Chinese have long been concerned they could wake up one day to discover that their “bad boy” in Pyongyang was out of power. Kim Jong Nam was a “king in waiting.”
It is not certain what the Chinese will do. They worry that if North Korea should collapse, they could quickly find South Korea, and even worse, the United States, on their border. China has gone to great lengths to keep that from happening.
The Chinese have not had much to say about Kim Jong Nam’s killing. A Communist newspaper in Malaysia condemned it, reporting that Kim Jong Nam had asked Kim Jong Un to withdraw the assassination order that had been issued against him. Why would it have been issued? Because Kim Jong believed that his half-brother was involved in a plot against him. At least one attempt, in 2012, has been made on the North Korean ruler’s life.
If Kim Jong Un were behind this killing, it would lend support to the argument that he is so unstable that he is capable of other unstable actions. In other words, no one knows what he will do, when he will do it, or why?
Dale R. Herspring, University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U. S. diplomat and Navy captain.
“Despite the power he has accumulated, Kim is an insecure, even paranoid, ruler.
He appears to see danger to his authority everywhere.”