Unpacking the Alleged Assassination of Former Heir to North Korean Throne, Kim Jong-nam

The Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Malaysian police are currently investigating the murder of estranged and subversive half-brother to the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. While no one has been convicted for the incident, which occurred on February 13th, US and South Korean officials have implicated the North Korean government’s foul play, considering the identification of five North Koreans as suspects. The hermit state of North Korea has remained silent in the face of increasing demands for answers. While the consequences of the assassination for the world remain unclear, the fact that it occurred in a Malaysian airport highlights the close diplomatic ties between the two nations, but also threatens to bring about the severing of these ties – as well as those with other nations, too.

Malaysia and the DPRK enjoy a very close relationship, relative to North Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world. Malaysian citizens are the only people in the world who enjoy visa-free access to North Korea and Kim Jong-un even holds an honorary doctorate in Economics from Kuala Lumpur’s private HELP University. Malaysia, for almost twenty years, has served as a bustling financial hub for the DPRK, attracting both legitimate and illicit business activity.

The close, mutually beneficial relationship has shown few signs of slowing down in recent weeks. Last December 18th North Korean businesses attended the 13th Malaysia International Branding Showcase; an act viewed by many as a manifestation of North Korea’s use of Malaysia as an economic gateway to South-East Asia. Just one week ago, North Korea and Malaysia renewed a memorandum of understanding with an objective of promoting the exchange of culture, arts and heritage between the two populations.

Many feel that Kim Jong-un ordered the assassination of his estranged half-brother, who was once the heir to the throne, in an attempt to further secure his leadership, which may be less stable than Kim would like the world to think. The assassination wouldn’t be his first demonstration of insecurity. Last month he fired the Minister of State Security for alleged abuse of power. In fairness, this firing is a break from a long-standing practice of executing cabinet members who upset the Supreme Leader in the past. It’s essential to consider this firing and the assassination in the context of the DPRK’s aggressive first ballistic missile test of 2017, which occurred last week, prompting threatening responses from South Korea, Japan, and the US. While uncertainty shrouds current North Korean affairs, these recent developments could certainly be indicative of destabilization in North Korean leadership.

If, as expected, it is the case that North Korea carried out the assassination, DPRK operatives’ use of Malaysian territory to stage a murder, regardless of motive, carries with it a number of implications. Malaysian officials are already facing pressure from the US and South Korea to allocate resources towards a costly, high profile investigation – in a developing nation that already faces severe competition for resources. Furthermore, US and South Korean officials will soon be exerting pressure on Malay-North Korean diplomats to share information and fully cooperate. Malaysia will be compelled to distance itself from the DPRK as the international community reacts. Already, Malaysia has recalled its diplomatic envoy to North Korea and has even summoned the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia for questioning. While the situation creates an enormous headache for Malaysia, the real threat to North Korea’s foreign policy are worries that the assassination is indicative of Kim Jong-un’s insecurity of leadership.

An unstable North Korea could mean many things for the world. The most prominent concern is North Korea’s growing arsenal of ballistic missiles. The country is quickly developing technology to deliver nuclear warheads, despite UN sanctions. A breakdown in leadership could leave the world, but specifically North Korea’s East Asian neighbors, fearing the effects of a nuclear explosion, intended or not. This concern pressures China, one of North Korea’s most prominent allies and neighbors, to ensure stability in the DPRK – something Chinese officials will struggle to accomplish considering the growing unruliness of Kim Jong-un.

While the situation remains uncertain, one thing has become increasingly clear: North Korea is changing, and simultaneously the greater international order is as well. As Kim Jong-un seeks to establish himself amongst a new wave of populist leaders, he will undoubtedly seek aid from allies. However, the already short list of potential partners is decreasing by the day as North Korea continues to attract unhelpful international attention with overtly aggressive displays of grandiose strength.


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