Image from Wikimedia.
In February, the brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Nam, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. Two women ran up to him as he was walking and sprayed him in the face with a liquid. He later reported feeling dizzy and uncomfortable, and things deteriorated quickly. Soon, he died. While it is currently undetermined whether or not this was an assassination with political motives, many people believe that Kim Jong-Nam was killed by his brother in a plot to prevent Jong-Nam from threatening his dictatorship.
Kim Jong-Nam was the oldest, albeit illegitimate son of the previous North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Il. Because he was illegitimate, his father had him sent off as a child, and Jong-Nam was educated in several places around the world, including Moscow and Switzerland. Eventually he was exiled for being a supporter of capitalist reforms in North Korea. Many widely believed that Jong-Nam was also close with the Chinese, and thus if the North Korean dictatorship ever stumbled, they could install him as the leader in a new, more reformist regime. Of course, his death, combined with other events in the region, could set off a chain of instabilities in East Asia that could have multiple effects on the US.
China is obviously very disappointed with the assassination as it sets back any reformist plans they might have had for North Korea. Historically, China has been North Korea’s ally, but today, that relationship is increasingly based on necessity rather than ideological similarity. If North Korea’s government were to fall apart, huge swaths of North Koreans would swarm across Chinese borders, presenting an insurmountable refugee problem for the Chinese. Furthermore, China is already importing large amounts of food and fuel into North Korea simply because they can’t afford a regime meltdown. Kim Jong-Nam’s death represents a lost opportunity for China to potentially defuse the bomb that is the North Korean government, and could lead to a multitude of unpredictable responses.
First of all, China is already facing several domestic, social, and economic problems. They have an extremely high male-female sex ratio as a result of the One-Child Policy, and they are facing slowing economic growth. Given that North Korea is also taking many offensive nuclear actions in the region, such as launching missiles into the Sea of Japan, China may feel like it has to assert its power in the region in order to create a sense of order. Of course, this is extremely concerning to the US because many US allies in East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea are extremely concerned about Chinese hegemony. In fact, China has already taken a step in this direction by stepping up its aggression in the South China Sea. If this happens, US foreign policy may have to shift significantly to counter these events.
China may also find itself being drawn closer to the US in its quest to contain North Korea. As I mentioned earlier, China’s relationship with North Korea has become increasingly strained over the past few decades, and especially over the past few years. The death of Kim Jong-Nam may just pull them away from their previous approach of appeasement and waiting for peaceful regime change toward North Korea. In that case, China would join the US in trying to contain the North Korean dictatorship as much as possible. However, if China does go in this direction, that would go a long way in confirming how unstable they truly believe North Korea is.
Both of these solutions speak to the rising instability in East Asia, particularly from North Korea, but possibly from China too. If North Korea is truly preparing for nuclear war while having the power to accomplish things overseas (that is, if they truly conspired to kill Jong-Nam), then there is no question the world should be fearful of their capabilities. Furthermore, China’s status as an appeaser of North Korea could be threatened by their own internal policies and crises. In the coming decade, the US must be very vigilant in its diplomacy with East Asian countries, or we may face a regional meltdown unheard of since the Second World War, or even worse, the world’s first nuclear war.
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