Three years ago today, Kim Jong Nam – eldest son of Kim Jong Il, once his heir apparent but later exiled – was murdered: not in the shadows, but in broad daylight in a crowded airport in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. He was about to fly home to Macau.
CCTV of two young women rubbing liquid on Kim’s face – deadly VX nerve agent, it turned out – is still on YouTube. His bizarre demise made headlines at the time, but memories fade.
Assassins, a new documentary recently premiered at Sundance, may revive them. It suggests the two women – both now free – were indeed innocent as they claimed, but were tricked into what they thought was a prank for TV. That was the tale spun to them by four men, who they didn’t know were North Korean – and who left Malaysia fast. Justice will never be done now.
North Korea is rarely out of the news, but in 2017 the story soon moved on. Throughout that year, Kim Jong Un (Jong Nam’s younger half-brother) tested ever bigger and better ballistic missiles, some able to reach the United States. A nuclear test, the DPRK’s sixth, followed in September.
Kim was also testing a new U.S. President, who riposted by threatening “Little Rocket Man” with “fire and fury.” In 2018 Kim switched to a peace offensive, with startling success. Both Donald Trump and South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, embraced him as a responsible statesman coming in from the cold, rather than a vicious tyrant or a clear and present danger.
Trump’s delusional bromance with Kim – “We fell in love” – somehow survived the debacle of their second summit in Hanoi last February, and zero progress on denuclearization since. North Korea went wholly unmentioned in this year’s State of the Union Address, so perhaps the penny has finally dropped.
But not in Seoul. Moon’s enthusiasm for dialogue remains undimmed, despite North Korea totally cold-shouldering the South for the whole of 2019 – while insulting Moon himself as an impudent meddler. Rarely have two leaders been so willingly duped – as I argue in detail in the latest issue of The Diplomat‘s magazine.
We shall see what 2020 brings, maybe soon. In December, Kim formally ended his two-year pause in nuclear and ICBM testing. He had never stopped launching smaller ballistic missiles, firing a flurry of advanced new missiles last year. Both Trump and Moon professed insouciance.
This year Trump has an election to win. So Kim’s next ICBM, whenever it flies, may elicit less “fire and fury” rhetoric now. But the challenge of North Korea’s WMD is real – and wider than most realize. The threat never went away, despite 2018’s false dawn, but has only grown.
Compared to nuclear and missile threats, a murder in Malaysia may seem small beer. Yet VX is a weapon of mass destruction (WMD), banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention – which North Korea, tellingly, has not signed. Its use was illegal and grossly irresponsible.
A fat lot Kim Jong Un cares. The real lesson of his brother’s murder, though few seem willing to learn it, is that it shows what North Korea is capable of – technically, and (im)morally.
Just like lofting a Hwasong missile, Kuala Lumpur was a test – and a brilliant success. Kim Jong Nam, who had no bodyguards, could have been quietly bumped off anywhere, any time.
Killing him the way it did allowed North Korea to run several tests. The regime can now be sure that its VX works, and can be successfully delivered and targeted. We may never know all the details, but this took meticulous organizing – and was accomplished without a hitch.
Kim Jong Un was also testing us politically. Could he get away with this? You bet. If foreign agents come in and kill with chemical weapons, most countries might get angry. Mine did.
In April 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the quiet English cathedral city of Salisbury with the nerve agent Novichok. The Skripals survived, but a woman who unwittingly picked up the discarded poison later died.
Moscow denied responsibility, but was not believed – except by such as the opposition Labor Party’s far-left leader, the ineffable Jeremy Corbyn. A furious British government marshaled international support. In all 28 countries expelled an unprecedented 153 Russian diplomats.
By contrast, Malaysia rolled over. Three North Koreans were briefly held, but swiftly let go when Pyongyang (outrageously) threatened to hold Malaysian embassy staff there hostage. Astonishingly, Jong Nam’s body was returned to the regime that murdered him.
Malaysia did stop visa-free entry for North Koreans, and partly closed its embassy. But a new government has other plans. Mahathir Mohamad, who returned as prime minister in 2018, wants it fully open again. Like his predecessor Najib Razak, Mahathir seems to regard the 2017 airport attack as an embarrassment to be forgotten, rather than the outrageous violation of sovereignty that it actually was. Such invertebracy can only embolden Kim Jong Un.
None of this is an argument against negotiations as such. Like the victorious Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Kim and his nukes are a fact of life which the world has to deal with. They are there.
But engaging the enemy is a job for the clear-eyed. Trump’s narcissism and Moon’s Korean nationalism blinded each to the true nature of their adversary. Kim Jong Un was not, and is not, playing the same game as them. Rather he is playing them, with great success.
He’s also forging ahead with WMD programs, in defiance of UN and other sanctions which were supposed to cripple them. How does he do it? Not least through cybercrime, which the UN Panel of Experts reckons has netted the Kim regime a cool $2 billion so far. Nice.
Whoever talks with North Korea should never forget Kim Jong Nam. His fate highlights two things: what kind of regime this actually is – a truly rogue state – and how far his brother is prepared to go. Kim Jong Un literally got away with murder. He’ll do it again, if we let him.
Aidan Foster-Carter is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England.