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Assassination proves a problem for China

Killing follows missile launch, which Beijing wasn’t notified about
Feb 16,2017
The assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia is troubling for China, which has served as protector to the older half brother of the North Korean leader, and could possibly lead to further strains in relations between Pyongyang and Beijing.

Kim Jong-nam had been known to be favored by China.

His murder, seen as being ordered by the North Korean regime, is reminiscent of the high-profile execution of leader Kim Jong-un’s once powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek, who also had close ties with China. Jang’s execution on charges of treason in December 2013 brought about a strain in Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) on Wednesday confirmed Kim Jong-nam was under Beijing’s protection.

Lee Byung-ho, director of the NIS, said Pyongyang “acted this way knowing that it will deteriorate relations between North Korea and China, which is why Kim Jong-un is difficult to predict,” according to lawmakers of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee.

Since before the Kim Jong-un regime began, after he succeeded his father Kim Jong-il at the end 2011, Beijing has protected North Korean figures that have been friendly toward China, such as Jang or Kim Jong-nam.

“China protected Kim Jong-nam not because it desired a regime change,” said an official of the Ministry of Unification in Seoul Wednesday. “But because nobody could ascertain if the Kim Jong-un regime would endure, it could be considered a Plan B for China, to prepare for many different possibilities.”

This indicates Beijing had kept Jang or Kim Jong-il’s eldest son on hand as leverage, but Pyongyang is seen to have received this as a form of interference in its internal affairs as well as a form of pressure and it expressed such discomfort, both indirectly and directly, to Beijing.

The NIS said that North Korea has attempted to assassinate Kim Jong-nam for the past five years. Diplomatic sources have also said the North Korean regime has attempted to kill Kim even before 2012.

A former high-ranking government official said, “There was a similar attempt in 2010, and at that time the Chinese government, which had been protecting Kim Jong-nam, shared the intelligence with our government.”

Kim’s families, by two different wives, reside in Macau and China, and he has during his exile mainly divided time between these locations as well as Singapore.

Kim’s murder comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test Sunday, to which Beijing objected. Pyongyang did not let China know of the launch beforehand, according to Seoul officials.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday avoided direct reference to the case, stating it “happened in Malaysia.” Neither did it confirm whether Kim’s family lives in Macau. But a Foreign Ministry official here said, “It is expected that [China] will express great discomfort” on the situation.

China and Korea relations expert Seok Tong-youn, a former consul general of the Korean consulate in Hong Kong, said, “China and North Korea relations have continued to worsen to the point that Kim Jong-un has not visited China once since 2012.”

It took six months for the normalization of relations between China and North Korea following the execution of Jang in December 2013, and involved Kim Jong-un sending his close aide Choe Ryong-hae, who is now vice chairman of the regime’s Workers’ Party Central Committee, as his special envoy to Beijing in May.

At that time, Choe had a letter from leader Kim to convey to Xi, but was treated coolly by the Chinese leader and reported to be kept on standby all day at his lodgings.

BY CHA SE-HYEON, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]