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North Korea's Palace Intrigue Goes International After Latest Assassination

North Korea's Palace Intrigue Goes International After Latest Assassination

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has held the reins of power in Pyongyang since the passing of his father in late 2011. As is customary, Kim has gone to great lengths to consolidate that power by preventing different factions from gaining too much leverage.

In pursuit of these ends, Kim removed long-time party members from their posts, such as O Kuk-ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea. In some extreme cases, Kim has executed his opponents.

Family Members Also Subject to Purging

Family members have not been spared from his purging, as evidenced by the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Sung-taek. The number of execution victims is estimated to range from the hundreds to the thousands.

While all of this purging is not unprecedented in North Korean politics, dissidents and people in exile have not been spared. A case in point is the suspected assassination this week of Kim Jong-un’s elder half brother, Kim Jong-nam.

Media coverage of the incident has been plentiful but light on facts as the investigation continues. What is known is that Kim Jong-nam was in the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when he told an airport employee he wasn’t feeling well. Jong-nam was rushed to a nearby hospital but died en route.

Malaysian police have instructed eyewitnesses not to talk to the media. But prior to that order, media reports indicated that two women approached Jong-nam and attacked him with either a chemical spray or a cloth over his mouth. One account indicated it was only one female attacker and she had some sort of needle or device.

Malaysian authorities say they have completed the autopsy of Jong-nam and intend to grant North Korea’s request to transfer Jong-nam’s body to Pyongyang.

Thus far, authorities have arrested three individuals of different nationalities, but none of them is Korean. But it is not unusual for intelligence operations to use people of different nationalities to obscure their operational involvement.

North Korea No Stranger to Assassination Attempts

North Korea isn’t shy about engaging in such provocative clandestine activities. Pyongyang has carried out assassinations in the past, such as the murder of Kim Chang-hwan, an activist who helped people escape from North Korea. Chang-hwan was killed – presumably by poison – while waiting for a taxi in China.

Several assassination attempts using toxins have failed. North Korean assassins targeted Park Sang-hak using a poison pen. Also, convicted North Korean intelligence operative Won Jeong-hwa was stopped while trying to kill “a South Korean military officer in Hong Kong using an aphrodisiac laced with poison,” according to South Korea documents.

In 2012, another North Korean operative failed to kill Kim Jong-nam in a staged hit-and-run accident in China. That attempt made more sense than the more recent and successful operation. At the time of the earlier assassination attempt, Kim Jong-Il had died only a few weeks earlier and Kim Jong-un was just beginning his reign as North Korean strongman.

Kim Jong-nam was critical of his family and its style of ruling. But he professed no desire to take over as leader. Nonetheless, Kim Jong-un likely felt it was necessary to remove any familial challenger to his power, even if they were beyond direct North Korean control.

There were rumors that Jong-nam was the natural successor to Kim Jong-Il. However, he embarrassed his family and was removed from consideration when he tried to enter Japan on a fake passport.

This scenario is flawed, however. Those of us who have dealt with North Korea from a counterintelligence perspective know full well that the ruling family often travels on forged passports usually belonging to China.

In reality, Jong-nam really never had a chance to succeed his father. His half-brother Kim Jong-un and the rest of his step-family, who he never met, were far more entrenched in North Korean politics and were groomed to rule from the start. This begs the question: Why would Pyongyang want Jong-nam dead now?

Kim Jong-nam Knew Family’s Financial Secrets

Jong-nam didn’t have any designs on national leadership. But he did know how the Kim family operates financially and avoids the numerous international sanctions levied against the family and the nation.

But that alone doesn’t quite require a rather bold assassination at an international airport. Jong-nam had that knowledge for quite some time and hadn’t offered it up to any foreign intelligence service, as far as we know.

What is most likely is that North Korea is still worried that any dissident or exile could threaten the regime simply by speaking out. Information flows into North Korea more frequently these days and dissident thought is perceived to be a very real threat.

In other words, the existence of Jong-nam – even outside North Korea – represented a problem. If he was not a problem for challenging Jong-un’s power, then he was a challenge to the closed and closely guarded ideological system on which the country is based.

Recently, a former North Korean envoy in the U.K. defected to the West and is rather critical of his former masters, as defectors are wont to be. Thae Yong Ho has insight into the regime and has spoken about its stability.

But for Pyongyang to demonstrate that it still has the ability to assassinate its detractors – even those watched by the Chinese – it’s conceivable that the Kim regime is sending its dissidents a message. If Jong-nam could be targeted, then anybody can. In essence, Kim Jong-un is still working to keep his critics off balance, wherever they are.

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