Saturday, February 25, 2017

My take on the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.

Kim Jong Nam. USA Today.

As you probably know Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was assassinated on February 13th. I've been wanting to post something about the incident for quite some time but until now other things have taken precedent. I finally have a bit more time and here have been some large developments in the case. We now know most of what happened in this case. 

First, and most importantly, Kim Jong Nam was killed by VX. VX is one of the most deadly and dangerous chemical weapons known to mankind. Microscopic amounts are enough to kill someone and it seems that Jong Nam was killed in that way. The use of a chemical agent like this isn't unprecedented but it is extremely unusually and given the high lethality of VX, very disturbing. 

The use of VX tells us quite a few things. Though there have been some exceptions, most notably the Aum Shinrikyo cult who used VX to kill two people and injure a third, VX is usually the domain of nation state level actors. It's not something that a lone wolf could ever manufacture themselves and only someone with the resources of a major government (or a very powerful organization like Aum Shinrikyo) is likely to be able to manufacture it. That means that it was almost certainly the North Koreans. They have a very active chemical weapons program and are known producers of VX. 

Second, the assassination was well planned and professional. The North Koreans hired two women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong wiped his face with the chemical precursors for VX. Apart, the chemicals were comparatively harmless but when mixed together it turned into VX and killed Kim Jong Nam. For her role in the assassination, Siti Aisyah was paid the equivalent of $90. 

Siti Aisyah. Police handout via USA Today
Doan Thi Huong. Police handout. 

I think it's pretty clear why the North Koreans used these two women. Both of them are fairly attractive (the picture of Doan Thi Huong is a mugshot but there are social media pictures out there where she looks much better) and look fairly non-threatening. I am guessing that Kim Jong Nam did not see them as a threat and allowed them to approach him. Using women as assassins isn't anything new but it is a very good way to pull off your plan. Especially if you use attractive ones. I am guessing if it had been two men that had done this to Kim Jong Nam, he would have fought back and the plot may even have failed. 

There has been some questions if Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong knew what they were doing or not. Their story is that they thought they were on a television prank show and they had no idea that Kim was going to die from it. The police say they knew exactly what they were doing. I won't pass judgement either way since neither have been convicted yet, but I have to say that even if they did believe that it was "just a prank" it was a pretty awful thing to do. Wiping someone's face with a noxious chemical is battery no matter what and even if they didn't know he was going to die they were essentially paid to attack someone. I have very little sympathy for either of them. 

As for North Korea, this seems like a major escalation with little payoff. Kim Jong Nam had been living in exile for years and was not much of a threat to the regime, though the regime obviously felt differently. At one point he was the heir apparent but back in 2001 he was arrested on a trip to Japan where he wanted to visit Tokyo Disney. This caused him to fall out of favor but the real deathblow is when he said that he wanted some limited reforms. His father, Kim Jong Il, disowned him for that and called him a capitalist. His half brother, Kim Jong Un, the current leader of North Korea, supposedly never actually met Kim Jong Nam due to Korean tradition saying that possible heirs shouldn't interact. Still, it's pretty cold to order the death of your half brother... 

After that, Kim lived in exile and occasionally spoke out about the need for reform in North Korea. That, combined with his extravagant lifestyle and the fact that he was protected by the Chinese was the probable motivation for this attack. The Kim family cannot afford a possible heir outside of their control and as long as Kim Jong Nam lived he was a threat.

But really, wasn't this overkill? I mean a guy with a revolver probably could have done the same thing without anywhere near the attention this story is getting. And they wouldn't even had to kill him publicly. They could have just abducted him and made him disappear. The fact that North Korea did this so publicly and with such flair and arrogance makes me think that this was a message to someone. 

So who was the target of this message? I am guessing the Chinese. China has just recently punished the North Korean's for their various missile tests and this attack by ending their purchases of coal. That is a major deal because China gets a massive amount of coal from North Korea, something like 25 million tons of coal a year. 

From what I understand the concept of "face" is very important in both Chinese and Korean culture. In short, there are social rules of what is acceptable and what isn't and one of the worst things you can do is embarrass someone socially. North Korea had lost face because the Chinese government had criticized them and put pressure on them to stop their nuclear program and missile tests. Not only did that embarrass the North Koreans, it also puts them in a weaker position both nationally and internationally. Remember, North Korea is very dependent on foreign aid for it's very survival. Criticizing them so directly was seen as an attack. 

Not only did the murder of Kim Jong Nam have domestic benefits in terms of security, it also caused the Chinese to lose face. Kim Jong Nam was living in Macau, China. He was protected by the Chinese government, who already prevented other attacks on him. Allowing Kim to die in such a public and spectacular was essentially a middle finger pointed at the Chinese and they threw up one of their own by cutting off North Korea's coal. 

None of this is good news for the stability of the North Korean regime. They are unstable as it is and if they weren't, I doubt they would have attacked Kim Jong Nam in the first place. With China cutting off their coal they are going to lose millions of dollars and this might be enough to push them over the edge. They may lose control of their country, or even worse, declare war in an attempt to take South Korea down with them. I don't think that it is very likely, probably less than 5% chance of it happening. But considering I would have said it had less then 1% chance of happening before this assassination, that is a major change... 

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