Discussion with Experts on North Korea, March 2017
On the morning of February 13, 2017 a shocking incident took place– Kim Jong-nam, who was at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in order to get on a plane to Macao, was assassinated by two women in broad daylight.
Related to the assassination of Kim Jong-un this post analyses and raises several questions such as who gave the final order for the killing of Kim Jong-nam? Which agency executed the order? Why didn’t the North Korean national Ri Jong Chol run away before getting caught? Did Kim Jong-un take the lead on this killing, which was bound to have a great impact on North Korea?
1. Was Kim Jong-nam’s assassination an act by North Korea and who issued the final order?
1.1. Kim Jong-nam’s assassination – an order from Kim Jong-un
Apart from North Korea there is no other country that has any reason to kill Kim Jong-nam. China said that it has protected Kim Jong-nam so it has no reason to assassinate him, and other countries have absolutely no reason to kill him. The use of poison in Kim Jong-nam’s assassination shows that this was a carefully planned crime, which could not have been done without involvement at the state level. When we look at the facts revealed so far it can be said that the killing of Kim Jong-nam is an act of terror planned and executed by North Korea’s spy agency following orders from Kim Jong-un.
The biggest reason why I say that it was command by Kim Jong-un is that he is the only person in North Korea who can issue an order for the assassination of Kim Jong-nam.
Kim Jong-nam is a member of the Kim family and although he is an older half-brother of Kim Jong-un they still share a blood relationship and any North Korean who hurts him can be punished by death.
Therefore Kim Jong-nam’s assassination is impossible without an order from Kim Jong-un.
1.2. Kim Jong-nam’s assassination – overseen by the Ministry of State Security (MSS)
The documents published until this moment show that there are altogether 10 people involved in Kim Jong-nam’s murder.
The two women, one Vietnamese and one Indonesian, who committed the killing were arrested. The boyfriend of the Indonesian woman was also arrested but later released.
Additionally four North Korean nationals left Malaysia on the day of the assassination and returned to North Korea via a third country.
At the same time it was revealed by the Malaysian government that the secretary of the North Korean embassy in Malaysia, an employee of Air Koryo and another North Korean national who is still being traced, are also involved in the murder.
In the DPRK the Reconnaissance General Bureau is in charge of overseas intelligence operations but the arrest, abduction and other acts on North Korean citizens are managed by the Ministry of State Security.
Since Kim Jong-nam is a North Korean citizen there is a high chance that his assassination was overseen by the Ministry of State Security.
1.3. Why was Kim Jong-nam killed exactly at this moment in time?
In a situation, in which North Korea is under sanctions and pressure by the international community because of its nuclear tests and firing of long-range missiles it is crystal clear that if it carries out the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the international society will put even more pressure and sanctions on it. Thus, question arises why did the DPRK carry out Kim Jong-nam’s assassination exactly at this moment?
Unless North Korea is very stupid, it has sufficiently thought about the considerable pressure and sanctions that the international community will impose on it if it is responsible for the killing of Kim Jong-nam.
Despite this it can be said that the elimination of Kim Jong-nam was deemed necessary and urgent by Kim Jong-un, who gave the order and as well as the executing spy agency who received the order.
In other words from the point of view of Kim Jong-un, his half brother was a person who needed to be removed as soon as possible, and from the point of view of the spy agency that received the order of Kim Jong-un, the elimination of Kim Jong-nam was quite pressing.
Then why does Kim Jong-un find the elimination of his older half-brother so necessary and pressing?
The biggest reason for this can be seen by the fact that Kim Jong-nam and his son, Kim Han-sol, have strongly offended Kim Jong-un by condemning him as a dictator and criticizing the third-generation hereditary transmission of power.
Another reason is that to the outside world saw Kim Jong-nam as the person who would become leader of North Korea in the instance that Kim Jong-un was removed.
Of course, if he is still alive, Kim Jong-nam stands in the way of the idolization of Kim Jong-un and the consolidation of his power which were sure reasons for Kim Jong-un’s decision to eliminate Kim Jong-nam.
Then from the point of view of the spy agency that received the order of Kim Jong-un to eliminate his half-brother, it goes without saying that it was under immense psychological pressure before it carried out the order
It is especially difficult to describe with words the pressure that the agency must have felt, knowing that Kim Jong-un can order the death of anyone he doesn’t like.
The North Korean spy agency saw that if it kills Kim Jong-nam the international community’s sanctions would be strengthened but it also could not report to Kim Jong-un that his order could not be executed or dismiss his instructions as unnecessary.
This is because in North Korea it is well known that if you receive an assignment from the Supreme Leader you have to find a way to complete it no matter what.
The reason for this is that no matter what needs to be done, once it is done you don’t have to be responsible for the consequences and if a problem arises you deal with it.
Therefore we can reach the conclusion that Kim Jong-un, who gave the order for Kim Jong-nam’s assassination and the spy agency that executed this order due to necessity and urgency, knew very well that the international community’s criticism, pressure and sanctions on North Korea would increase, but proceeded with the assassination anyway.
2. New Method of Assasination
2.1. Contract killing prank
One characteristic of the murder of Kim Jong-nam is that adding to the fact that this was a contract killing where the target had to be eliminated by a third person, it was also carried out in the form of a prank.
The method of contract killing familiar to us is one in which money is given to a third person in exchange for eliminating the subject.
From this point of view the murder of Kim Jong-nam is a contract killing.
However this is not a classic case of contract killing.
It is typical in a contract killing that the killer received money or other asset as a corresponding price in order to kill a person, and generally the killer knows in advance that he/she has to kill the target.
However the assassination of Kim Jong-nam did not cost a lot of money, and the criminals that took part in this terrorist act did not know that their actions would lead to the murder of a person. From this perspective this successful assassination is different from the classical contract killing.
As a result the method used to kill Kim Jong-nam is called a ‘contract killing prank’ and this can be viewed as a new assassination method.
When we take a more detailed look at the background and impact of Kim Jong-nam’s murder it is assumed that the two foreign women who were directly involved in the murder only followed the instructions that led them to believe that they we just shooting a prank video.
Although some are of the opinion that the fact that after the criminal act the women went to the restroom to wash their hands can be perceived as a proof that they knew about the existence of a toxin. However, there is also the possibility that they washed their hands because their skins was stinging. There is a possibility that even if they knew about a substance they only thought that it was a strong sedative. I believe that the two women may be telling the truth.
There are two reasons why I think this. First, the act of terror against Kim Jong-nam was conducted by the women very naturally and without hesitation.
If the women knew in advance that they were about to kill somebody, as ordinary people, they would have trembled and would not have been able to conduct the act so naturally and without hesitation.
From this point of view there is a very high possibility that the women did not know that the target of their prank was Kim Jong-nam.
Second, the women came back to the same spot even after conducting the act of terror.
If the women knew in advance that they were about to kill the object of their prank, they would have escaped far away and would not have returned to the same place.
This is also evident by the fact that the North Korean spies left the women and fled.
If the women who took part in the terrorist act possessed important information or if there was a plan to use them again in the future at least they would not have been neglected like this. It can be said that eventually the North Korean spy agency introduced third parties to the murder who were responsible for the elimination of the target and at the same time modified the method to a ‘contact killing prank’.
2.2. The use of foreigners
North Korea’s use of foreign women in the killing of Kim Jong-nam can be interpreted as its intention to shift even a little criticism from the international society.
If the North Korean agents had directly conducted the terror act themselves they would have been directly exposed to the international community’s sanctions and pressure, while the advantage of using foreign women was that even if the foreigners were caught North Korea would not suffer a direct blow.
Therefore foreign women were engaged because as women and not men, and as non-North Koreans, they had a better chance to get close to Kim Jong-nam who was always in fear from the threat of terror.
2.3. The reason why Ri Jong-chol did not escape and was able to be arrested
Paradoxically it can be said that the fact that Ri Jong-chol did not run away like the other criminals and was arrested shows that he is not the principal offender.
The reasoning is that if Ri Jong-chol had a decisive role in the killing of Kim Jong-nam it would have been unacceptable for him to be arrested and he would have received orders from the spy agency to be the first one to escape.
As a result there is a very high chance that in the planning of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination Ri Jong-chol was not directly involved but was given a side support role such as driving so that he would not be arrested by the Malaysian investigative authorities.
There are CCTV cameras installed inside the airport so inevitably the people who were sent to the site of the murder would be recorded by the cameras. Considering this they would have escaped quickly. Therefore it is possible that the North Korean side thought that since Ri Jong-chol did not appear on the camera recordings then he would not be caught.
It is possible that in the planning of the assassination, the North Korean spy agency did not know that in most developed countries CCTV cameras are installed everywhere and are used in criminal investigations. Of course the agency must have had an evacuation plan for Ri but it is possible that he got arrested before he escaped because the Malaysian investigators moved faster than what the North Korean agency expected.
However it can be said that the reason why the North Korean side did not prepare a plan for a quick evacuation, which led to the arrest of Ri, was probably because it was expected that the Malaysian authorities would not be able to arrest Ri Jong-chol or that they would not arrest him as he only played a supporting role.
2.4. Malaysia as the site of terrorism
Kim Jong-nam visits Malaysia several times a year to go on a holiday and it seems that information about his itinerary has been leaked.
Malaysia (as well as Indonesia) has diplomatic relations with both South and North Korea but since both Malysia and North Korea are members of the Non-Alignment Movement they have a mutual visa-free agreement and are very close.
Influenced by USA’s war on IS there is a high anti-American sentiment among Malaysian citizens. Therefore Malaysia was possibly chosen as the best spot to conduct the terror act on Kim Jong-nam, and not Macao where he resides so that there would be no friction created with China, on which the DPRK authorities depend a lot politically and economically and also there would be no interference from the US.
2.5. An airport terminal: a reckless choice
Based on its previous experience of using poisonous substances to commit acts of terror North Korea had the confidence that it would achieve its goal without leaving any evidence.
It seems that this time the intention of the North Koreans was to make the childish women smear poison on Kim Jong-nam’s face as if they were pulling a prank, so that he would die from a heart attack, taking his last breath at the airport terminal or on the plane.
Right after the incident the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur made a request for “the transfer of the dead body of the citizen of the Republic who died from a heart attack”.
2.6. The choice of nerve agent VX that is difficult to trace
It is assumed that North Korea took into consideration the characteristic of the VX agent to break down very slowly inside the body and when used in small quantities it takes some time before a person dies from its use.
If Kim Jong-nam died at the airport terminal or onboard the airplane North Korea could state that he had died from a heart attack and mobilize its diplomatic power to transfer the dead body of its citizen.
If things had developed according to North Korea’s calculations the incident could have been simply concluded as death by unnatural cause.
3. The North Korean reality as seen through the assassination of Kim Jong-nam
Kim Jong-un cruelly killing his half-brother paradoxically can serve as evidence for the extent to which Kim Jong-un’s regime has weakened.
The biggest reason that Kim Jong-un risked criticism from the international community and decided to eliminate Kim Jong-nam in an unreasonable way was to remove any source of sentiment against him such as groups in North Korea that supported Kim Jong-nam and were antagonistic towards Kim Jong-un’s authority.
Other contributing factors were the movement of overseas support for a potential head of a North Korean government in exile, as well as the actions and words of Kim Jong-nam and his son Kim Han-sol criticizing the North Korean society.
Kim Jong-un’s complex about his birth and the existence of Kim Jong-nam as the eldest son probably posed a quite big psychological burden.
Kim Jong-un committed the inhumane atrocity of killing his half-brother in order to preserve his regime but on the contrary it is clear that this will be a boomerang that will destroy Kim Jong-un’s regime.
4. How should the International Community react?
4.1. Tasks for the Malaysian society
As the country where the incident took place, Malaysia’s government has to resolve all problems clearly.
The Malaysian government suffered a violation of its sovereignty by North Korea, despite the fact that until that moment the two countries maintained good diplomatic relations. This must have made the Malaysian government sufficiently recognize the true nature of North Korea.
4.1.1. It should be made clear that the North Korean government’s statement that Kim Jong-nam is an “ordinary citizen of the republic,” is a false forced statement.
Kim Jong-un is greatly afraid of news about the inhumane poisoning of Kim Jong-nam spreading both inside North Korea and internationally.
Therefore in addition to the normal investigation the Malaysian authorities should utilize up-to-date scientific analysis and all other methods in order to verify that Kim Jong-nam is a murder victim.
It should be fully exposed that the government of Kim Jong-un directly committed this act of terror.
In order to achieve this, it should not only the people who have already fled to North Korea but also the people who are hiding in the North Korean embassy who should be directly investigated.
This includes the people who were mobilized on the ground in Malaysia to either be directly or indirectly involved in the incident or the support group of four people who already escaped to North Korea and three people (including Hyon Kwang-song, the second secretary of the North Korean embassy who is known to have led the operation). They are in hiding in the embassy (or a spy safe house) and have not cooperated with the investigation. Despite this the Malaysian government should put pressure on North Korea and demand the extradition of all people involved in the killing.
4.1.2. Verify the source of the poisonous substance VX used in the killing and to prove that the North Korean spying agency had used it
There should be a thorough investigation in order to reveal that North Korea used the nerve agent in this act of terror and it should include an investigation into whether North Korea has used it in the past, whether the DPRK is able to produce it by itself, as well as an investigation on the distribution channel used to get it.
4.1.3. Stronger cooperation with international investigators to achieve a perfect investigation
Before or after they committed the crime the criminals involved in it seem to have either passed through or stayed in other countries. In order to achieve a perfect investigation the cooperation of investigators from other countries, which the criminals had passed through, should be sought. This is especially true for Macao, where an opportunity was given to the involved individuals to stay in the country without a visa for a short period of time and there should be a cooperation with the local authorities to investigate what kind of activities they had undertaken regarding Kim Jong-nam and his family.
4.1.4. Need for re-examination of the relations between North Korea and South Asian countries
Malaysia is one of the representative countries in South Asia alongside Indonesia, Cambodia and others, with which North Korea maintains friendly relations.
It is known that while North Korea under very strict sanctions imposed by the international society it also maintains active trade, export of professional manpower and other exchanges with South Asian countries that bring quite a lot of foreign currency to the regime.
The incident that took place is an opportunity to seek change in the bilateral relations between these countries.
Following North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing in the current situation there still exists the demand for the severing of diplomatic relations and if even Malaysia declares the cutting off of its relations with the DPRK this would be an enormous shock for North Korea and an enormous diplomatic success for us.
Looking at the measures taken by the Malaysian government such as summoning its ambassador in Pyongyang it seems that there is a high possibility for cutting off the relations between the two countries if it is proven that the North Korean government was responsible for the terrorist act.
4.1.5. Re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in view of the incident
The current situation could be a chance to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and recognize the Kim Jong-un’s administration as an anti-human state capable of brutal terrorist acts.
Moreover it is possible that the incident would lead to additional sanctions against North Korea.
4.2. Tasks for the South Korean government
Below are some things that the South Korean government should do:
4.2.1. Offer support (in the form of all relevant materials on North Korean terrorism and the brutal act of poisoning of Kim Jong-nam including information on the DPRK agencies involved in the terrorist act, on the terrorist technique and manner) to the Malaysian government in order to achieve smooth investigation
The South Korean government should provide materials (personal/material information) on North Korea’s continuous terror acts involving poisonous substances so that the Malaysian authorities can conduct their investigation with sufficient understanding of North Korean terrorism.
4.2.2. Request the cooperation of the international society in order to receive external support for the Malaysian investigation
Additional investigation is needed on the activities of the two women who took part in the poisoning of Kim Jong-nam, the Vietnamese Doan Thi Hong and the Indonesian Siti Aisyah, both inside Malaysia and outside the country.
Thinking forward, there is also a need for cooperative efforts with some of the countries where the North Korean spy operatives have visited that are willing to assist the South Korean government as well as for confirming the whereabouts of the spies.
4.2.3. Maintain a system for investigation cooperation and close exchange of information on the premise of Malaysia’s government’s understanding
The South Korean government should offer timely support to the investigation while obtaining a detailed understanding of the investigation process.