‘No one is im­mune, and that I have this power, I can get rid of any­one’

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is a New York-based jour­nal­ist with ex­ten­sive writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on for­eign af­fairs, diplo­macy, global eco­nomics and in­ter­na­tional trade

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.

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