‘No one is immune, and that I have this power, I can get rid of anyone’
AS he embarks on a three-nation tour of Japan, South Korea and China, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s agenda for talks in all three countries will be dominated by North Korea’s nuclear threat to its neighbours in North Asia, with wider ramifications for the US west coast, though Tillerson will also raise bilateral and international issues.
One likely issue to crop up will be North Korea’s ongoing spat with Malaysia following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the unpredictable and viciously revengeful North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at klia2 on Feb 13.
Malaysia and North Korea are now locked in a diplomatic row over a number of issues, particularly the fate of staff members of Malaysia’s embassy and their families in Pyongyang, who are trapped inside the North Korean capital and unable to leave the country.
Since the entire world has been following the Malaysia-North Korea spat, it would be naïve to believe that the Trump administration is not interested in it.
Indeed, the diplomatic grapevine here suggests that the subject will figure in Tillerson’s discussions in Tokyo, Seoul and, particularly, Beijing, which has close ties with Pyongyang, though the larger issue of North Korea’s nuclear threat will ubiquitously loom at all such encounters.
Responding to a question I raised on the ongoing MalaysiaNorth Korea tensions, Susan A. Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state (East Asia/Pacific), said during a press briefing at the Foreign Press Centre that the US administration supported the Malaysian government’s stand, though she would not make further comment.
“I think our take on this issue is that the Malaysian government has a perfect right to try to defend her citizens and territories from attacks on people, whether it be at their airport or in other venues, and so we have been very supportive of Malaysian government efforts to get to the bottom of this attack.
“And, I think for any kind of detailed discussions on the tensions between the Malaysian government and the government of the DPRK, I would have to refer you to the two of them.
“I know that there have been some ongoing discussions, but I don’t anticipate — I mean, other than our support for the Malaysian government handling this very difficult issue, I don’t think I have any further comment from the State Department perspective.”
Submerged under this heap of diplomatic jargon is the administration’s underlying interest to prevent North Korea’s future sinister cloak-and-dagger games on foreign soil.
Jong-nam’s assassination at klia2, if left unaddressed, could only embolden Jong-un to carry out more shocking attacks on the soil of other countries, including possibly the US.
US think tanks have also been busy discussing and churning out reports and studies proffering expertise on how to grapple with the hermetic state, which has defied world opinion and brazenly violated United Nations resolutions that prevent it from conducting nuclear tests.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, America’s leading foreign policy think tank, recently organised a panel event, picking the brains of its panelists of the calibre of Robert L. Gallucci, a former assistant state secretary for political military affairs and now a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University; Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of defence, Sue Mi Terry, managing director Korea of Bower Group Asia, and a former deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council; and Mitchel B. Wallerstein, a former deputy assistant secretary for counterproliferation policy in the US Defence Department.
As these four pundits discussed the central issue of how to deal with the North Korean leader, it became clear that America’s options were limited.
America’s limitations stem from a heavy dependence on China, whose influence on Jong-un, as many say, is exaggerated.
Jong-un is more stubborn and more implacable than his father and grandfather ever were. Add to this his ruthless, unpredictable and audacious moves, ignoring the dire consequences of his actions, and you have the world’s most dangerous despot.
During the CFR panel event, Sue Mi Terry said: “We always knew that Jong-nam was in trouble… there was a standing order (to liquidate him) but what is interesting is the timing and the way in which it (the assassination) was done.
“As an intel (intelligence) person, I am so used to various North Korean officials disappearing or even (killed) in a car accident. He (North Korean leader) could have killed Jong-nam in a very different way.
“Why at a major public airport using a weapon of mass destruction (VX nerve agent) with video tapes everywhere?
“I think Jong-un wanted to send a message to would-be rivals, competitors and defectors that no one is immune, and that I (Jong-un) have this power, I can get rid of anyone.
“He wanted to put him away and the fact that he used this very deadly (substance), this is incredible. He didn’t have to do that. He could have used something else to kill Jong-nam.
“So, I think he wanted people to know he had this chemical weapon. I think he wanted to send a message to the world.
“Why Jong-nam? Because, as I mentioned earlier, he was the one person to have legitimacy to potentially, perhaps, come back and take power.
“That is really a far-fetched scenario, but Jong-un was paranoid enough to worry about that,” Terry explained.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visiting the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang recently. untry. Since the entire world has been following the Malaysia-North Korea spat, it would be naïve to believe that the Trump administration is not interested in it.