Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of Workers’ Party of Korea chairman and dictator Kim Jong-un, has been assassinated in an airport in Malaysia. Kim Jong-un has successively purged cadres believed to hold measures of power, such as his uncle, Jang Sung-taek. General Kim Won-hong, the former minister of state security who had been directing the purges, himself fell from grace last month. Many other officials in the Ministry of State Security have also been culled.
Kim Jong-un does not trust even those whom he once found to be reliable as a young leader. There is no reason to believe that Kim Jong-nam had any influence inside of North Korea, but it is likely that he was finished off simply because he was a “political enemy.” Is it possible to sustain a regime any further than this by means of fear alone?
What is certain is that a markedly erratic regime and its leader exist very close to Japan. A regime that is now toying around with ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. The international community must proceed with grave caution and must be prepared for an escalation of North Korea’s recklessness and maybe even collapse.
North Korea launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles at the very moment when the leaders of Japan and the United States were mutually reaffirming the U.S.-Japan alliance. When the UN Security Council condemned North Korea for the launches, North Korea, in turn, said that it “categorically denounced” the condemnation.
Now, in the midst of this propaganda war aimed at overseas audiences, an illusory rival has been assassinated in a third-party country. If it is true that North Korea is behind the assassination, then it will once again have revealed the true nature of this brutal state sponsor of terrorism.
Careful attention must now be paid to the recent defection of Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He revealed, among other things, that Kim Jong-un plans to complete his nuclear and missile development programs within the year. Thae also pointed to the danger that the regime would pose going forward. It must be expected that there will be other defections by elite officials.
How should we prepare for an unpredictable scenario? The United States will play an important role, as it possesses the ability to deter North Korea. President Trump has said that he is deeply concerned about the threat posed by North Korea but has not yet crafted any firm policies for dealing with the North.
South Korea is moving toward the election of its next president where there is increasing support for opposition-party leaders who are friendly toward North Korea.
In Japan, we are faced directly with the threat of North Korean missiles and the nuclear weapons they may carry. We must be aware that we are entering into a situation in which it will be indispensable that we deepen our relationship with both the United States and South Korea.
China, of course, will also have an important role to play. It is likely that China had long been protecting Kim Jong-nam in order to have a bargaining chip with North Korea. But that chip is now gone with his recent assassination and one must wonder what the implications will be for China’s relationship with North Korea.
It is true that there are no good choices for dealing with North Korea but in light of recent events there is a heightened necessity to apply greater pressure through further sanctions and other means. China must stand shoulder to shoulder with the other key players in striving to bring peace and stability to the region.