Peter Tasker

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Assassin’s Creed: North Korea at the Brink


Peter Tasker


Peter Tasker

Published in the Nikkei Asian Review 1/3/2017

Much remains mysterious about the horrible, but brilliantly executed assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13.

What was Kim Jong Nam, who lived in Macau, doing in Malaysia, unprotected and apparently using a budget airline? How did North Korean agents, assuming  they were responsible, have sufficient advance knowledge of his movements to hatch the elaborate plot? And, the biggest question of all, have the North Koreans gone too far this time?

The North Korean regime has a history of using provocative actions – including terrorism – as a means of demonstrating its lethal capability and thus gaining advantage in negotiations and cowing potential dissidents at home. The lesson it has learned is that bluster, brutality and blackmail make for a winning strategy. That is why 27 years after the end of the Cold War, this desperately poor country of some 20 million people still grabs the attention of the world’s most powerful nations.

Yet Pyongyang’s adversaries have absorbed some lessons too. Through its latest extreme action, the North Korean regime may have unwittingly pulled off an extraordinary diplomatic feat – bringing together U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. If such an alignment were to take shape, the endgame for the regime could be in sight.

Malaysian security personnel investigate the crime scene at Kuala Lumpur airport Malaysian security personnel investigate the crime scene at Kuala Lumpur airport


U.S. policy toward North Korea has oscillated between use of the carrot and the stick. Under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the U.S. tried engagement, centering on the freezing of North Korea’s plutonium enrichment program in exchange for the construction and financing of two light water nuclear power plants, a type unable to  produce weaponizable waste material. But even as construction proceeded, the regime was secretly acquiring technology to build a uranium-based weapon from the illicit network run by Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan.

Then under George W. Bush, in the post-9/11 world, North Korea became part of the “axis of evil.”  Sanctions were imposed in response to its nuclear and missile program, but had no effect either. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Barack Obama took a more passive approach, favouring “strategic patience” which essentially meant doing nothing and waiting for the regime to fall apart autonomously.

There are  two reasons why none of these policies worked. The first is that the North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival and has no intention of giving them up. The second is that China is the only country with substantial leverage over North Korea. In comparison, the carrots and sticks waved by the United States and its allies are puny.

Kim Jong Un with basketball star Dennis Rodman Kim Jong Un with basketball star Dennis Rodman


China has been prepared to overlook a string of North Korean transgressions  – such as the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette in 2010  and last year’s digital bank heists in Bangladesh  –  because it has judged the regime’s survival to be in its own national interest. Any form of Korean reunification that creates an American military ally, complete with bases and a population of some 70 million, right on the Chinese border would be unacceptable. Furthermore, a  disorderly collapse of the Pyongyang regime could lead to huge refugee flows, battles between military factions and general chaos.

The Trump administration is in the process of reviewing policy options toward North Korea, but an extension of Obama’s “strategic patience” is highly unlikely. The status quo is too unstable to permit that. North Korean nuclear tests have become larger and more frequent and its missile technology much more sophisticated. Its claim to be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States is no idle boast. No U.S.  president can allow that to happen given the regime’s willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, such as the VX nerve gas that killed Kim Jong Nam.

Unlike earlier administrations that saw the North Korean problem as one that the Washington  could and should solve by itself, Trump seems more attuned to the strategic limitations of the U.S. position in comparison with China. “I think China has tremendous control over North Korea, whether they say so or not,” he declared in a recent interview. “They could solve the problem very easily if they want to.”

In a sardonic tweet before his inauguration, Trump placed the North Korean threat in the context of broader Sino-US relations. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”

Trump has already rowed back on possibly abandoning the One China policy as his November phone call with the Taiwanese president had suggested. He also has yet to name China as a currency manipulator as he had pledged to do “on day one.” Could there be a deal in the making?

At first sight Trump would appear to be the least likely U.S. leader to come to a strategic understanding with Beijing – but then Cold Warrior Richard Nixon was the least likely to strike a bargain with communist dictator Mao Zedong.

The outline of a potential deal is possible to discern. On one side, a non-threatening regime in North Korea, perhaps with a road-map toward gradual  reunification. On the other side, the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, starting  with the abandonment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system that is now scheduled to be deployed soon.

Trump’s perception that nothing will change in North Korea without a buy-in from China is right. After all, China accounts for some 80% of  North Korea’s official trade. If so inclined, it could shut the economy down in a matter of months.  But does the Chinese leadership have the motivation to change its long-standing policy of indulging its fraternal comrades  in Pyongyang?

The chances are certainly greater than ever before. The very public killing of Kim Jong Nam, supposedly under Chinese protection, is a clear insult. It was intended to send a message to the enemies of North Korea that “you are not safe.” But it also sends another message, that China is incapable of protecting its friends, and that will not be appreciated in Beijing.

The Vietnamese woman arrested by Malaysian authorities, captured by security cameras just before the attack on Kim Jong Nam The Vietnamese woman arrested by Malaysian authorities, captured by security cameras just before the attack on Kim Jong Nam


This comes after the spectacularly grisly execution in 2013 of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s pro-Chinese uncle, and the eradication of his entire family and faction. It looks as if the North Korean leadership may be taking its only ally for granted. Or maybe not. Maybe Kim Jong Un ordered the hit because he distrusted Chinese intentions and feared that his half-brother was being groomed for a comeback. In the world of North Korea nothing is simple and straightforward.

Kim Jong Nam was not cut out to be a ruthless dictator. A Swiss-educated bon viveur, he visited Japan many times on forged passports to enjoy the restaurants and nightlife. It was an attempted illegal entry to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001 led to his fall from grace in his father’s eyes.

He was also ideologically suspect. According to a Japanese journalist with whom he exchanged a long series of emails, Kim Jong Nam believed that North Korea should follow the same path of economic reform as China.

If his death sets in train a sequence of events that makes that happen, it will not have been in vain.

"Young General" Kim Jong Un alone on a ski-lift “Young General” Kim Jong Un alone on a ski-lift

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