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What Is The Significance of The Death Of Kim Jong-nam?

Editor’s note:

The following is a summary of an op-ed by the North Korean expert Ding Dong exploring the possible motivations behind and ramifications of the death of Kim Jong-Nam, Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother. The original can be found here (in Chinese).


      Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim-Jong-un, has died on the way to hospital shortly after being attacked by an unidentified woman of North Korean appearance in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur international airport.

Discussions over who would want him dead abound, yet the most likely suspect for many is his half-brother and current leader of North Korea: Kim Jong-un. As has been shown repeatedly, the Kim family’s dynastic rule over North Korea has necessitated ruthless purges of competing sources of power, even if this competition is from a family member. In North Korea, power and influence come at a cost, and Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be just as ruthless as his forebears.

Indeed, Kim Jong-un would have reasons to have his half-brother killed. Though long-estranged from the centres of political power in North Korea, Kim Jong-nam was in fact originally touted as the successor to his late father Kim Jong-il until his excessive lifestyle resulted in his younger brother, Kim Jong-un, assuming the position. Moreover, although North Koreans may appear outwardly compliant with Kim Jong-un’s approach, growing resentment over the heavy-handed rule of the Kim regime (as well as the generally low living standards) could increase over time amongst average citizens and the elite, leading some to eventually search for an alternative leader that is far from the political centre: Kim Jong-nam. It is out of fear of this possible outcome that Kim Jong-un may have had his half-brother killed, and why he continues to rely on and encourage such ruthless tactics to maintain control in the face of dwindling domestic support.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

Alternatively, some have suggested that the assassination may have been on the part of the US or South Korea, perhaps as a step to eliminate the Kim family and its dynastic rule. This, however, is unlikely to be the case, because the primary objective of the US and South Korea is not to eliminate the Kim dynasty, but to end the regime’s nuclear ambitions and achieve a peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Having Kim Jong-nam killed would not help achieve this objective, and would likely damage both states’ international reputation as well as give the Kim regime an opportunity to bolster its own political standing. Similarly, Kim Jong-nam’s death did not elicit a strong response from South Korea, suggesting that his death was not considered significant. Additionally, culpability in his death could damage relations with both China and Russia, who, as stakeholders on the Korean Peninsula, would like to see someone from the Kim family as the DPRK leader in a new regime. With the death of Kim Jong-nam, this is now less likely.

Finally, the official DPRK version of events was that Kim Jong-nam died of indigestion – effectively an admission of guilt. What is more, when considered in light of the missile test that took place the previous day, it suggests that the Kim regime is facing both domestic and international challenges to his leadership and the regime in general. Combined, these actions are likely to diminish the US’s patience and goodwill in its policies towards North Korea. It is thus incumbent on all interested parties to agree on a peaceful process to remove Kim Jong-un from power as soon as possible. In the event that a peaceful resolution cannot be brokered, it would be prudent for China and other stakeholders to consider all possibilities and contingencies in dealing with the Korean Peninsula, including the removal of Kim Jong-un, if necessary, especially if it will enhance the security and stability of China and its borders.