Lots of fin­ger-point­ing at North Korean leader

But if Kim was in­volved in half brother’s death, the big ques­tion is: Why?

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY ANNA FIFIELD

kuala lumpur, malaysia — Feb. 16 is al­ways a glo­ri­ous day on the North Korean cal­en­dar. Known as the “Day of the Shin­ing Star,” it marks the an­niver­sary of the birth of Kim Jong Il, the coun­try’s se­cond-gen­er­a­tion leader.

This year, as usual, wreaths were laid Thurs­day at stat­ues of Kim Jong Il and his fa­ther, North Korea’s “Eter­nal Pres­i­dent,” Kim Il Sung. There were pa­rades and fig­ure skat­ing and syn­chro­nized swim­ming and dis­plays of the flow­ers known to the rest of us as be­go­nias but to North Kore­ans as Kimjongilia.

The North’s third-gen­er­a­tion leader, Kim Jong Un, cut a solemn fig­ure as he bowed at his fa­ther’s tomb and presided over a meet­ing of Com­mu­nist Party ap­pa­ratchiks.

But was that look of grav­ity a mark of re­spect for his de­ceased fa­ther? A sign of shock at the sud­den death this week of his es­tranged older half brother? Or the steely face of a man who will stop at noth­ing to hold on to power?

For South Korea’s of­ten-un­re­li­able in­tel­li­gence ser­vice and some an­a­lysts in China, Kim Jong Un is sus­pect No. 1 in the ap­par­ent as­sas­si­na­tion this week of Kim Jong Nam, who was the old­est son of Kim Jong Il and had been liv­ing in a kind of ex­ile for the past 15 years.

North Korea has a his­tory of state-or­dered as­sas­si­na­tions, in­clud­ing an at­tempt — in­volv­ing a poi­son nee­dle dis­guised as a pen — to kill a de­fec­tor-turned-ac­tivist in South Korea as re­cently as 2011.

Malaysian po­lice have ar­rested two peo­ple ac­cused of di­rect in­volve­ment in the brazen at­tack on Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur air­port Mon­day — the women al­leged to have car­ried out the poi­son­ing, one ap­par­ently from Viet­nam and the other from In­done­sia — and have de­tained the In­done­sian woman’s Malaysian boyfriend to help them with their in­quiries.

But so many ques­tions re­main. Why would Kim Jong Un want to kill a half brother who, apart from one state­ment in 2010 ques­tion­ing North Korea’s hered­i­tary suc­ces­sion sys­tem, had shown no po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions?

Why would he have him killed just days be­fore an aus­pi­cious an­niver­sary? And why would North Korea de­vi­ate from its prac­tice of us­ing elite agents for such tasks, in­stead al­legedly send­ing for­eign women so ill equipped for the task that they didn’t even know to flee?

One the­ory: Kim Jong Un, who was only 27 when he be­came leader and had lit­tle gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence, is still get­ting rid of po­ten­tial ri­vals.

Like other dic­ta­tors be­fore him, he has overseen the dis­patch, tem­po­rar­ily or per­ma­nently, of peo­ple who could chal­lenge him for the lead­er­ship of his coun­try. He most no­tably had his un­cle — and Kim Jong Nam’s men­tor — ex­e­cuted in late 2013 for amass­ing too much power.

He has also overseen the purg­ing or ex­e­cu­tion of a whole raft of se­nior of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing his de­fense min­is­ter, his deputy ed­u­ca­tion and con­struc­tion min­is­ters and, just this month, his ap­par­ently de­moted min­is­ter of state se­cu­rity.

A re­port by the South Korean in­tel­li­gence ser­vice’s think tank at the end of last year es­ti­mated that Kim or­dered the ex­e­cu­tions of 340 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 140 se­nior of­fi­cials, in his first five years in power.

Kim Jong Un showed from the get-go that he would sort out the loyal from the wa­ver­ing, said Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at New York Univer­sity and co-au­thor of “The Dic­ta­tor’s Hand­book.”

“The ex­e­cu­tion of his un­cle sent a mes­sage: ‘ I’m sort­ing out my al­lies and clear­ing out the rest,’ ” Bueno de Mesquita said. “He has been well trained, and he has good in­tu­ition about what a per­son run­ning a place like North Korea needs to do.”

But Christo­pher Green, a North Korea scholar at the Nether­lands’ Lei­den Univer­sity, said Kim Jong Nam was not a threat to his younger brother’s le­git­i­macy.

“He lived in quiet ex­ile abroad, whereas Kim Jong Un was Kim Jong Il’s anointed heir,” Green said. “Kim Jong Nam was never go­ing to be an alternative power cen­ter, and power doesn’t get con­sol­i­dated, per se. The process has no start or end. It is a con­stant bat­tle to stay on top.”

Kim Jong Un has de­fied pre­dic­tions of his im­mi­nent demise, in De­cem­ber mark­ing five years at the helm, a pe­riod char­ac­ter­ized by rel­a­tively strong growth and tan­gi­ble ad­vances in the North’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams.

Mean­while, his older half brother ap­peared to be liv­ing the good life. He had been based in Ma­cau and Bei­jing for well over a decade — ap­par­ently hav­ing wives and fam­i­lies in both places — liked vis­it­ing casi­nos and was said to have play­boy ten­den­cies.

Some an­a­lysts, urg­ing skep­ti­cism, say it is more likely that Kim Jong Nam ran afoul of the un­der­world in South­east Asia than that Kim Jong Un or­dered the hit. But in the ab­sence of clear ev­i­dence, opin­ion is co­a­lesc­ing around the lat­ter idea.

Be­cause even if Kim Jong Nam didn’t have grand de­signs for his fu­ture, China did.

Re­la­tions be­tween Bei­jing and Py­ongyang have wors­ened dra­mat­i­cally in the past five years, with Kim Jong Un show­ing ob­vi­ous dis­dain for Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and the Chi­nese ap­pear­ing to view the young leader as er­ratic. This has led to spec­u­la­tion that Bei­jing has been keep­ing Kim Jong Nam on standby in case it needs to in­stall an­other, more China-friendly Kim in Py­ongyang.

Wang Weimin, a spe­cial­ist in Korean stud­ies at Fu­dan Univer­sity in Shang­hai, said China had se­cu­rity mea­sures in place to pro­tect Kim Jong Nam from North Korean agents, even though it had long rec­og­nized he was not lead­er­ship ma­te­rial.

“China did not have huge ex­pec­ta­tions for him but pro­vided pro­tec­tion for him and his fam­ily,” Wang said, “be­cause China had po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thy” for him.

Wang es­ti­mated the like­li­hood that Kim Jong Un had or­dered his older brother’s as­sas­si­na­tion at 80 per­cent. “It is not sur­pris­ing that he wants to clean out any­body threat­en­ing to his reign,” he said.

Of­fi­cials in China also seem to be lean­ing to­ward the the­ory that Kim Jong Un or­dered the killing.

An edi­to­rial in the state-run Global Times said that Bei­jing would join in ex­pres­sions of in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion if Malaysian au­thor­i­ties con­clude that Kim Jong Nam was as­sas­si­nated. “Hu­man civ­i­liza­tion is now in the 21st cen­tury, and such a sav­age and out­dated po­lit­i­cal de­vice should be cast into the mu­se­ums of his­tory,” it read.

Not­ing that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was still un­der­way, it said spec­u­la­tion was nev­er­the­less “sharply pointed” at Py­ongyang.

“Such spec­u­la­tion is se­verely dam­ag­ing to North Korea’s rep­u­ta­tion on the in­ter­na­tional stage,” the edi­to­rial said.

Cong­cong Zhang in Bei­jing con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ED JONES/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

North Kore­ans watch a fire­works dis­play near the Tae­dong River in Py­ongyang in cel­e­bra­tion of the “Day of the Shin­ing Star,” mark­ing the birth­day of leader Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.

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