It is uncertain how many people have been executed in North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, but one South Korean think tank puts the number at around 340 people. While most of these deaths go unremarked or unnoticed by the outside world, one man’s death in strange circumstances on 13 February in Kuala Lumpur airport has caught the attention of the world’s media. The man was Kim Jong Nam, the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and son of former leader Kim Jong Il. Now being treated by the Malaysian authorities as murder, this is an appropriate time to look at the North Korean regime in 2017 and to ask why this latest atrocity has crossed a line for the previously healthy relationships North Korea has enjoyed in Southeast Asia.
Most people will be at least passingly familiar with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – commonly known as North Korea – but as one of the countries in the world which receives the least foreign media coverage, clarification of the main players is important. Described as a totalitarian society with a ‘Stalinist’ cult of personality having been built around the country’s founder and his family, the country is ostensibly communist and holds regular elections but in actuality operates as a hereditary monarchical system. Kim Jong Nam, found dead last week, was the heir apparent in North Korea for most of his youth but was later sidelined in favour of his younger half-brother Kim Jong Un. The latter became leader in the wake of his father’s death in December 2011. Like most aspects of North Korean politics, the reasons that Kim Jong Nam was passed over are not exactly clear. Apparently his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, the ‘Great Leader’ and founder of modern North Korea, had disapproved of the extramarital affair that had led to his birth. He had also been raised largely in private schools in Europe and returned to North Korea as an adult having been, in the words of one high school friend, ‘Westernised.’ Although he never spoke out publicly against the regime of his father and later brother, critics believed that his reticence spoke volumes. By not supporting the regime, he was in some way condemning it, particularly by choosing later in life to live in Macau, a territory of North Korea’s most hated enemy China. By embracing Western culture he was also looked down on within his home country. In fact, his removal from the heir-apparent position came directly after a 2001 attempt to visit Disneyland Tokyo. He had lived outside of North Korea for many years, in either self-imposed or forced exile. And now, in circumstances still not entirely clear, he was poisoned with a chemical rag by two females in an airport in Malaysia.
Malaysia is one of the few countries that have strong diplomatic ties with North Korea. In fact, it is the only country whose citizens can travel to North Korea without a visa. Unlike many other countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia does not publicly condemn the human rights violations apparent within this closed-off state. However, the reaction of Malaysia to this allegedly politically motivated murder on its soil has been swift and decisive. Malaysian authorities treated this death as suspicious straight away, an autopsy result proved inconclusive, but with evidence of poison in Kim Jong Nam’s stomach. CCTV footage showed two women running up to him and forcing a piece of fabric into his face in the middle of the airport. In fact, on 22 February Malaysian police announced they want to question a diplomat from the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur in relation to Kim Jong Nam’s death.
We should be clear: we do not know the exact cause of his death, though it seems almost certain that poison and therefore a poisoner was involved. We also do not know if anyone from North Korea was involved, either working on behalf of the government or independently. However, as ever, the facts are irrelevant when it comes to politics and diplomacy. The media immediately linked the death to Kim Jong Un and the North Korean regime and it seems as if the Malaysian police are doing so too. What this will spell for North Korean relations with Malaysia is not yet known, but one can be fairly certain that the consul in Kuala Lumpur will be much more strictly watched by Malaysian authorities than ever before, and that North Korean visitors to Malaysia can expect more difficulties. North Korea have not helped ease diplomatic matters: the North Korean envoy in Malaysia, Kang Chol, made accusations to the government of Malaysia, claiming that they are ‘trying to conceal something’ in the investigation. As a result, Malaysia recalled its ambassador to North Korea from Pyongyang, indicating that they do not trust the North Koreans.
But the ramifications are larger than a breakdown of relations with one former ally. The Western media are condemning the attack, and several Western authorities are taking this as an opportunity for the world to take North Korea to account on their continued human rights abuses, nuclear tests and lack of diplomatic cooperation. One academic, Stephen Webber, believes that North Korea ‘has already extracted every possible concession from the West.’ Now is the time, he argues, to make an ‘ultimatum.’ This is correct: whoever is responsible for the death of Kim Jong Nam is directly or indirectly linked to the regime that produced him. This deserves closer attention, if not for Nam’s sake then for the 380 other people who were executed by the DPRK in the last six years, not to mention the thousands more who perished through famine or other crime as a result of poor government in North Korea. The world needs to take this opportunity to hold North Korea to account, and in turn the North Korean authorities need to learn to cooperate. They cannot escape this death that occurred outside of their walls as they escape everything else, by simply pretending it did not happen. Regardless of their involvement, this is an international incident and they must remain diplomatically cordial.
Some hope the future lies with the son of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Han Sol. Twenty-one years old, having grown up largely outside of North Korea, including being educated at an elite international school in Mostar, Bosnia, he has publicly spoken about bridging the gap between North Korea and the rest of the world. His whereabouts now are not known. He may be the best chance we’ve got now to understand the reasons why his father was killed – but it may also be advisable to tell him to watch his back.