Monday, March 13, 2017

Kim Jong-nam killing spawns intriguing conspiracy theories

MARCH 2, 2017

BEIJING — The sensational assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport two weeks ago is incomprehensible to most people.

To begin to understand this apparent act of fratricide, one needs to recognise that North Korea is essentially a medieval absolute monarchy ruled by an insecure and tyrannical 33-year-old.

For all its modern twists — the use of VX nerve agent, the suspected assassins’ professed belief they were part of a reality TV show, the “LOL” (“laugh out loud”) acronym across a T-shirt worn by one of the accused women — this was murder in the mode of a Plantagenet or Ottoman Sultan.

The “young marshal”, as Kim Jong-un insists on being called, was fearful that his 46-year-old half-brother Jong-nam had a better claim to the throne and that he might one day usurp him with the help of China or the West.

For well over a decade, Kim Jong-nam lived in Macau and Beijing, and was protected by Chinese state security agents. He periodically criticised his younger brother and spoke in favour of the West, while advocating economic reforms for his Stalinist homeland.

The inevitable question is why now?

The answer potentially lies in the changing international context and the younger Kim’s rising fear of the unpredictable Donald Trump administration.

The choice of VX — the deadliest synthetic nerve agent ever made and a chemical weapon banned under international treaties — was intended to send a fearsome signal. It warns high-profile North Korean defectors they are not safe anywhere in the world and shows the West that Pyongyang has other nasty weapons apart from its rapidly expanding nuclear programme.

It also proves to Kim Jong-un’s elite domestic audience that he is ruthless and has no qualms about doing away with even blood relatives in gruesome fashion. South Korean intelligence agencies have said the younger Kim issued a standing order for his brother’s execution as soon as he took power at the end of 2011 — so why did it take so long for the assassination to be carried out?

Chinese agents were responsible for protecting Kim Jong Nam when he travelled abroad as well as when he was in the country, according to people with ties to China’s security apparatus.

Two theories are circulating in Beijing as to how the team of North Korean assassins and their agents were able to carry out such a brazen operation.

One is that recent purges in the Chinese state security ministry have left it depleted and some of its operations in disarray, including the mission to protect the elder Kim from assassination.

The second theory is tantalising but convoluted. Some believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping has decided to rein in North Korea to curry favour with the Trump administration and lower tensions in the nuclear-armed neighbourhood.

China is worried about South Korea’s planned deployment of a United States-built missile shield, aimed at defending it against Pyongyang’s missiles but which Beijing suspects could be used against its own military. To convince Washington and Seoul that the missile shield would be a mistake, Beijing must assert more pressure on Pyongyang, who insists on testing nuclear weapons and missiles at regular intervals.

China’s announcement last week that it would halt coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year prompted a rare outburst of China-bashing from North Korean state media. Beijing knows how volatile Kim Jong-un is and that some of his nuclear weapons could easily be pointed north as well as south.

If he thought a Chinese government harbouring the most credible usurper to his throne had decided it was time for regime change, then Kim Jong-un could easily lash out.

Since his dethronement would almost certainly involve his own death, there would be little to stop the dictator from engulfing the region in nuclear Armageddon. So in order to sweeten things for the Kim regime and convince it that Beijing is not intent on its imminent removal, perhaps Chinese agents let their North Korean counterparts know that Kim Jong-nam would be travelling to Malaysia and that his usual bodyguards would not be as diligent as usual.

This remains just a conspiracy theory, one that some Western diplomats have privately dismissed as complex and implausible. But if it was indeed a macabre gesture of goodwill from Beijing, then it would have cost the Chinese government almost nothing while improving its chances of forcing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and reducing the chance of a nuclear tantrum.


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