Kim Jong Nam, the older brother of Kim Jong Un was recently (February 14th) murdered in Malaysia, apparently by North Korean assassins. North Korea has regularly used commandos and secret agents to kill “enemies of North Korea” who were outside the country. Since the 1960s there have apparently been about ten such efforts, most of which succeeded. Failures have been more frequent of late, in part because South Korea has more intelligence and special operations resources. But this latest killing was directed more at China (a first) than South Korea or the West in general.
Kim Jong Nam, his wife and two children all have citizenship in Macau (a former European colony with similar status to nearby Hong Kong). There is also believed to be an ex-wife (and one child) living in northern China. Thus Kim Jong Nam was under the protection of China and killing him is a direct assault on China. This is very bad behavior and reflects poorly on Chinese leadership and how the increasingly troublesome former ally, North Korea, has been handled. Officially, China has blamed the United States and South Korea for the North Korean misbehavior (missile launches, nukes, assassinations), stating that if only the United States would agree to direct negotiations with North Korea there would be no problem. For a long time (especially since 2009) North Korea has insisted on direct talks with the United States, rather than six way (North and South Korea, China, Russia, the United States and Japan) negotiations. This is another smoke screen. The only negotiations that will work must include all the neighbors. The U.S. cannot make deals just with North Korea, and North Korea knows this (as does China). The Americans recognize the independence of South Korea (as does China) but North Korea still insists that South Korea is a puppet of the United States and illegally occupied by foreigners. It's all just another negotiating ploy, one that the North Koreans have been using for decades. It is unclear how much longer China will support this fiction.
The two Kim brothers were never close and both spent a lot of their youth in the West. Kim Jong Nam was more attracted to the West and had recently expressed an interest in visiting South Korea. Their differences were explained in 2012 with the publication of "My Father, Kim Jong-il, and I: Kim Jong Nam's Exclusive Confession." Written by a Japanese journalist, after years of email and personal conversations with Kim Jong Nam, the book made it clear (implicitly, not explicitly) that China had sheltered the eldest (born 1971) son of Kim Jong Il for decades and some Chinese considered him a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un if the younger son does not succeed as the new ruler of North Korea.
There had been recent rumors of the Chinese preparing to implement such plans and that may have led to the assassination. By tolerating the publication of the book since 2012 China allowed the spread of truths that were known by many but denied officially. For example, Kim Jong Nam believed his younger brother was not capable of running North Korea and was, at best, a figurehead. Kim Jong Nam also confirmed what many have been saying, that North Korea is in very bad shape politically and economically and facing eventual collapse. Kim Jong Nam blames this on the policy of "military first" rather than "people first". He confirmed that North Korea sank the South Korea warship Cheonan in 2010 ago and the carried out the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Both moves were meant to intimidate South Korea and all those who were trying to halt the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Kim Jong Nam has been living in China since 2002 because his father lost faith in his ability to become the next Kim to rule North Korea. This break became official in 2003. Kim Jong Nam was seen as too independent minded and undisciplined for the job. The Chinese quietly granted Kim Jong Nam sanctuary (and citizenship), and blocked any North Korean attempts to get him back or kill him. Kim Jong Nam has generally kept silent (as far as the public was concerned) about his views on North Korea but travelled outside the country without any bodyguards. China allowed this book to be published in China and that was something Kim Jong Un took personally
Chinese leaders are fed up with the self-defeating behavior of Kim Jong Un, who has been in power since 2011. Face-to-face with Chinese officials Kim Jong Un is apologetic and increasingly lies about actions that China considers unfriendly (to China). Pro-Chinese North Korean officials report that Kim Jong Un is paranoid and ruthless. Kim is believed to have executed several hundred senior officials since he took power. That apparently extended to Kim Jong Nam, who was often discussed in China (especially on the Internet, which Kim Jong Un knows how to use) that relations with North Korea would improve immensely if Kim Jong Nam was in charge. But the older brother always insisted that he was not interested in the job and apparently he was sincere about that. But it got him killed anyway.
Police in Malaysia believe four male North Korean agents planned the assassination and at least three of them fled the country shortly after the attack. There are three other people being sought for participating in the assignation preparations. Apparently there are international efforts to capture some or all of the suspects before they can get back to North Korea. Malaysia recalled its ambassador in North Korea but North Korea did not do the same with their ambassador in Malaysia.
Purging The Secret Police
The main component of the secret police, the North Korean SSD (State Security Department), had its director removed (“purged”) after a three day meeting in late January. The meeting was attended by senior security officials to address growing accusations that the secret police were corrupt. This has resulted in more anti-government talk among the people, a lot of it done openly. In addition to the spread of anti-government graffiti the details of this secret police corruption are getting around North Korea and outside the country. Witness reports of secret police using beatings and torture to steal money from civilians was particularly annoying to Kim Jong Un and he approved the execution of five secret policemen for getting caught at it. Kim apparently also approved of the details of this meeting being leaked so the North Korean people could see that their leader cares about such things. Kim was apparently disappointed when he received reports that most North Koreans were not impressed. One reason for this attitude was the fact that the government has also ordered an increase in police efforts to find and punish North Koreans using Chinese cell phones to make calls via Chinese cell towers just across the border. Kim ordered the secret police to increase the use of execution, rather than labor camp, for those caught. That item was not leaked but word got around because implementation took place immediately.
More THAAD News
Since late 2016 China has been using more and more trade restrictions to persuade South Korea to halt its efforts to install an anti-missile system. The latest effort includes Chinese border officials who make things as difficult as legally possible for South Koreans entering or leaving China. Moreover officials (especially the police) in areas along the North Korean border have been told to make life difficult for any visitors from South Korea. The only limit on police bad behavior is something that could turn into an international media/diplomatic incident. China has already tried bans on all legal (licensed) use of South Korean movies, TV shows and popular music inside China it has expanded the list of banned imports to include popular consumer items like air purifiers and heated toilet seats. The bans began with the aspects of South Korean culture were most in China and very lucrative for the South Korean firms that produce them. It’s also a point of pride for South Koreans in general that Chinese admire, and pay for, a very public aspect of Korean culture. Most Chinese dislike these bans, not just because many are for popular consumer items but also because about ten percent of all Chinese imports come from South Korea.
The bans began in late 2016 when the Chinese concluded that they could not persuade South Korea to halt its efforts to defend against ballistic missiles. China is particularly eager to stop South Korea from installing American THAAD anti-missile systems. Because of continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile development South Korea now plans to have THAAD operational in 2017, several years earlier than originally planned. China, Russia and North Korea have long opposed THAAD. China will not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korean voters understand that so all the threats are having less impact than China expected. It’s Chinese consumers who suffer and given the degree of air pollution in Chinese cities this latest ban will be something to choke on. Russia also opposes the South Korean anti-missile defenses but that matters little to South Korea because Russia is much less of an economic partner and not nearly as much of a military threat as China.
Despite the growing number of North Koreans legally working outside the country who are “defecting” the government has ordered the number of exported workers to increase. The government decided that the need for foreign currency was so great that additional runaways could be tolerated. But the secret police were also ordered to be more severe in punishing the families of defecting workers. That means it becomes more difficult to bribe your way out of prison camp and now there will be more executions of family members in cases that are particularly embarrassing to the government (as in those that get a lot of foreign media attention). Another security measure is offering more attractive labor rates to Chinese companies that are hiring workers for industrial establishments with well protected compounds. These are built to keep thieves out but all that security can also be used to keep North Korea workers confined to the factory compound (which, in China, often includes housing for unmarried workers). North Korea will cooperate by providing additional security personnel to assist. Cheap North Korea labor is more and more attractive to Chinese employers because a shortage of Chinese workers is driving up labor costs. This is a growing economic problem for the government.
Apparently some of the foreign employers are not treating their North Korean workers well and a growing number of the North Koreans are running away, despite the fact that this means family members back in North Korea will be punished. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015 and now is headed for another major expansion. The number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps (a death sentence if you are too young or too old).
Evidence that the new Chinese enforcement of sanctions can be seen by North Korean exporters (especially government owned firms) suddenly seeking legal exports. The chatter in the international black market for weapons is that North Korea can no longer deliver because China no longer tolerates North Korea smuggling these weapons (and other illegal items like drugs and counterfeit currency) out via China. The privately owned export companies have long dominated the export of legal items and are making it difficult for the state owned firms to compete. The secret police report that a side effect of this is more North Koreans concluding that the entrepreneurs are much more successful at solving economic problems than the government. No one can say that out loud but even the government must pay attention to the growing size, success and popularity of the market economy. This extends to the most basic things, like the worsening power (electricity) shortage and the entrepreneurs responding with more solar panels for sale in the markets.
North Korea was rated as one of the three most corrupt nations on the planet (174 out of 176 countries) for 2016. Somalia continues to be the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current North Korea score is 12 compared to 53 for South Korea, 40 for China, 29 for Russia, 33 for Vietnam, 72 for Japan, 61 for Taiwan, 31 for the Philippines, 37 for Indonesia, 49 for Malaysia, 79 for Australia, 84 for Singapore, 40 for India, 45 for South Africa, 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 48 for Jordan, 28 for Lebanon, 29 for Iran, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 25 for Afghanistan. 32 for Pakistan, 11 for South Sudan, and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.
February 19, 2017: South Korean officials have told their Chinese counterparts to stop the threats and economic sanctions over South Korean plans to build anti-missile defenses. South Korea points out that the Chinese threats are not popular in South Korea or in China and the Chinese leaders know it. In light of the growing popularity of South Korean culture and imports in China, and continuing threats from North Korea, there is no defensible reason for opposing South Korean anti-missile defenses.
February 18, 2017: China ordered a halt to all coal imports from North Korea. At the moment coal exports to China accounts for at more than half the foreign currency North Korea earns each year from China (which accounts for 90 percent of all North Korean foreign trade). This is a major problem for North Korea because there is no one else they can sell their coal to while China will have no problem finding other suppliers. North Korea will now be tempted to seize Chinese investments in North Korea in retaliation but that could trigger a final break with their only major ally.
February 17, 2017: The United States, South Korea and Japan made it clear that they would be increasing their defense cooperation, despite lingering disputes (mostly over past Japanese atrocities in Korea) between Japan and South Korea.
February 16, 2017: China announced that it would do everything necessary to protect the family (a wife and two adult children) of the recently assassinated Kim Jong Nam.
February 15, 2017: China reacted promptly to the news of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination. At least a thousand additional troops were sent to the North Korean border. Chinese media were ordered to play down the news but the Chinese Internet was lighting up with popular outrage at this latest move by an already unpopular (with most Chinese) neighbor. Even before the latest insults (missile launches and the murder of Kim Jong Nam) many Chinese were openly calling for abandoning North Korea. The Chinese leaders are not willing to do that but they are angry at the continued insults they are receiving from Kim Jong Un.
February 14, 2017: The older brother of Kim Jong Un was murdered in Malaysia. Two days later North Korean diplomats demanded that there be no autopsy and that the body be turned over to them. Malaysian officials demanded proof that the dead man was Kim Jong Nam and that proof would have to be a DNA sample from a close relative, like a brother.
February 12, 2017: North Korea conducted a test a new mobile ballistic missile test in which the “Polaris 2” was successfully fired from canister on a tracked vehicle acting as a TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). The TEL used the same cold launch used by the North Korean “Polaris 1” SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). The Polaris (or Pukguksong) 2 appeared to be the same missile as the Polaris 1, except that it was fired from a canister on a TEL instead of a silo in a submarine. A mobile TEL carrying a ballistic missile that can reach all of South Korea and parts of Japan (and China), especially one armed with a chemical or nuclear warhead, makes North Korea a much more dangerous threat, North Korea achieved this by illegally obtaining components for the TEL, the missile and quite possibly the cold launch capability.
February 10, 2017: China expelled 32 South Korean Christian missionaries who were working along the North Korean border. The missionaries have long worked among the many ethnic Koreans living in the area. Most of these ethnic Koreans are Chinese citizens but a growing number are illegal migrants from North Korea.
February 4, 2017: The new American head of the Department of Defense (and former Marine Corps general) visited South Korea (and Japan) and reaffirmed the American willingness to honor its defense treaties with South Korea and Japan. This includes continuing to sell anti-missile and other high-tech systems to both countries and a pledge to rapidly move in Aegis equipped warships with anti-missile capabilities. The new Department of Defense leader was very popular during his visits in part because of his military background and personal experience in the region as a marine officer. All this annoyed North Korea and China, who both criticized the United States for causing instability in the region. What the two communist nations are really upset about is South Korea becoming a major military (as well as economic) power in the region. In 2016 South Korean defense spending ($34 billion for that year) put the country into the top ten. The U.S. remains number one but China is second, spending four times as much as South Korea. The latest data also shows that defense spending in Asia was now 30 percent higher than all of Europe.
February 2, 2017: China has missed the deadline for reporting how much coal it has imported from North Korea in December 2016. China imports most of its coal from North Korea and agreed to reduce those imports by nearly half. It is unclear if China will adhere to these restrictions even though China has stopped most other imports of sanctioned items from North Korea.