North Korea’s Further Isolation

Following the shocking assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and eldest son of former leader Kim Jong-il, North Korea has become increasingly isolated from the international community and tensions are high due to diplomatic squabbles. Kim Jong-nam was poisoned last Monday at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on his way back to his home in Macau, where he lived under protection from Beijing. Since the incident, tensions have escalated between North Korea and Malaysia, and threaten to escalate further between South and North Korea.

Malaysian police have identified five North Korean suspects, some of whom fled Kuala Lumpur directly after the attack. Arrests have been made, including of two non-North Korean women, who took part in the attack. The South Korean Unification Ministry has said that it believes that Pyongyang is behind the attack, with Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo stating that “The whole world has already regarded the North Korean regime with suspicion from the very first beginning of this incident” (Yonhap News). Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-he said that the assassination has “reaffirmed the unpredictability and brutality of the North Korean regime.”

North Korea has vehemently denied any involvement with the attack and has, instead, pointed fingers at Malaysia, accusing Kuala Lumpur of colluding with South Korea to blame Pyongyang. North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, told reporters that the Malaysian police investigation cannot be trusted, and Pyongyang will reject the results of the autopsy since no North Korean officials were allowed to be present. Kang claimed that Malaysia has been “colluding and playing into the gallery of external forces,” which is a reference to South Korea.

Experts have largely viewed Kim Jong-nam’s death as ordered by his younger half-brother leader Kim Jong-un, who may have seen Kim Jong-nam as a potential threat to his leadership. Kim Jong-nam’s death has been understood as part of the purges Kim Jong-un has carried out since his rise to power in 2011 in an effort to secure his leadership, which has seen an estimated 100 government officials be killed or sent to the countryside. In 2013, another close family member, Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, was executed. Kim Jong-nam had previously been next in line to take over his father’s position as head of state in North Korea, but in 2001, he was caught attempting to sneak into Japan with a fake passport in order to, reportedly, visit Tokyo Disneyland. Since then, he had been living overseas and occasionally voicing criticism against the regime. Some experts believe that another possible reason for his assassination was that Kim Jong-nam may have been looking to defect and seek asylum, something that his assassination prevented.

If it is confirmed that North Korea is behind the attack, it will further isolate North Korea from the world and add to already tense relationships as North Korea will face condemnation internationally. South Korea has considered raising the attack in an upcoming meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the 27th of February. South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-Hyuck stated that the South Korean government is “reviewing an action to publicize the North Korean regime’s brutality and inhumanity on the occasion of the international community’s human rights discussion” (Yonhap News). Relations between China and North Korea, North Korea’s closest ally, could also be damaged considering that Kim Jong-nam was under protection from Beijing.

Relations between North Korea and China may already be showing signs of strain as it is suspected that the assassination lead China to suspend North Korean coal imports until the end of the year, a decision that occurred just days after the assassination. This decision follows the directions of the UN Security Council’s resolution of December 2016, which was intended to punish North Korea’s 5th nuclear test.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Um Hyun-seong called for heightened caution and observation at the North-South border. Defence Minister Han Min-koo called for a “readiness against any possible military attacks by the North” (Yonhap News).