Beyond palace intrigue: How North Korea's antics threaten US interests
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Last week in Malaysia, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s estranged half brother was assassinated in shockingly public fashion.

Apparently poisoned by two young women as he walked through Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Kim Jong-nam’s death appears to be the latest example of his tyrannical brother’s enthusiasm for violence that is both bizarre and cruel.

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Yet Kim Jong-un’s murderous antics are not merely palace intrigue; his brother’s death is the latest in an effort to cleanse the North Korean government of people with whom the international community could quietly communicate, or even exert influence. Kim Jong-un is ruthlessly isolating himself and his government from the outside world — and in so doing, further deepening the threat faced by the United States and its allies.

 

Kim Jong-nam was not close to North Korea’s inner circles at the time of his death. Sidelined early in the power struggle to succeed his father, Kim Jong-nam went on to live a life of affluence in exile, largely in China.

When his younger brother Kim Jong-un came to power, Kim Jong-nam, despite his distance, was seen as a threat to the legitimacy of the young dictator, and has been the target of suspected assassination plots ever since.

Likely contributing to this paranoia was Kim Jong-nam’s close relationship with the Kim brothers’ shared late uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Jang was seen by many as the closest member of the Kim regime to China, and by Beijing as their best source of information and influence in Pyongyang.

China, the closest thing North Korea has to an ally, has long been a key source of food and fuel for their dictatorial neighbor. Beijing has occasionally used these lifelines as leverage over the Kim family, but far short of what the international community feels necessary to pressure North Korea over its nuclear program and geopolitical misbehavior.

Nonetheless, Pyongyang chafes at these avenues of influence.

In 2013, Jang Song-thaek was accused of engaging in counter-revolutionary activities and was executed. Kim Jong-nam’s last, best link to Pyongyang was severed, and China was reportedly horrified to find what little power it had in North Korea receding rapidly.

In the years since, North Korea has lashed out at China more frequently in their reliably-hyperbolic state media. In apparent response to Pyongyang’s recent provocative missile tests, Beijing announced it would curtail coal exports to North Korea, prompting withering denunciations from Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-nam was by no means in any position to mount a China-friendly challenge to his brother’s rule, but his closeness to an increasingly impatient Beijing nonetheless still made him a target.

China has yet to exert the kinds of pressure the United States would want, but Washington and the international community have few better options. The policies floated so far by Trump administration officials — additional sanctions, expanded missile defense, and pressure on China to do more — are markedly similar to those of previous administrations.

President Trump has promised a more assertive approach than the gradual-pressure “strategic patience” strategy of his predecessor, but he also has recognized the importance of China in any potential long-term solution. While Beijing’s recent actions restricting coal shipments is an encouraging step in the right direction, the Trump administration seems to be simultaneously setting the stage for a diplomatic and economic confrontation with China — a move unlikely to advance the president’s goals on North Korea.

Kim Jong-nam’s death is not alone a geopolitical game changer, but yet another potential door for diplomacy being murderously slammed shut.

If there is a silver lining, it is that bizarre, violent behavior like this does nothing but further convince the international community — perhaps even China — to unite behind plans to exert ever greater pressure on the North Korean regime. Yet as Kim Jong-un continues to fatally cut off avenues for diplomacy, the world is left with only increasingly blunt, destabilizing tools, like cutting off vital resources, or even contemplating military action.

The Kim regime wants to make any effort at confrontation to be as damaging as possible — and they are succeeding.  

Harry Krejsa is a Research Associate with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.