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In China, a sense of betrayal after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 17/02/2017 Simon Denyer
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pictured on a South Korean news show about the assassination of his half brother. If North Korea was involved, it would be embarassing for China. © Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pictured on a South Korean news show about the assassination of his half brother. If North Korea was involved, it would be embarassing for China.

BEIJING — China’s Foreign Ministry has been at its stonewalling, non-committal best this week after news of the dramatic assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’S leader, repeating the mantra that it has “noticed relevant media reports and is closely following developments.”

But behind the scenes there is a sense of shock and dismay in Beijing, officials and experts say: if indeed Kim Jong Nam was assassinated on the orders of the North Korean leader, it would be seen as an affront to the country that has afforded him protection for many years.

“China’s inner circle of government is highly nervous about this,” said Wang Weimin, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“Kim Jong Nam’s assassination makes China more aware of how unpredictable and cruel the current North Korean regime is, as well as Kim Jong Un’s willingness to abandon China and sell it for his own benefit at any second.”

Kim Jong Nam has lived for over a decade in Beijing and Macao, apparently with wives and children in both places, and had a reputation as something of a playboy who liked to visit casinos. Chinese experts said he had received 24-hour protection — and monitoring — from China’s security services, as well as financial assistance when he needed it.

Yet despite his status as the oldest son of Kim Jong Il, he had shown no obvious political ambitions. Fudan University’s Wang said China realized long ago he didn’t have leadership potential, and didn’t pin huge hopes on him. Nevertheless, he was a guest of their country, who would probably have provided valuable intelligence in the past.

The assassination has also come at an uncomfortable time for China, just days after North Korea conducted a missile test and at a time when the new Trump administration has been asking China to do more to rein in its troublesome neighbor and ally.

China had responded to that missile test by asking the United States not to escalate the situation, but instead to start a dialogue with Pyongyang.

Then, this happened: a reminder, according to Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, of the regime’s true nature: “a cruel and ultimately capricious dictatorship that cannot be trusted on anything.” 

While the official Communist Party mouthpieces, the People’s Daily newspaper and Xinhua news agency, have confined themselves to bland news reports on the incident, the nationalist Global Times tabloid, given a freer rein, has been more forthright, reflecting views shared by some officials and ordinary citizens.

Speculation sharply points at Pyongyang’s hand in the murder, in-house commentator Shan Renping wrote on Thursday: If that’s confirmed, China would join the international community in condemning it.

“Regardless of how intense a country's political struggle might be, there is no doubt that it should never rely on assassination methods as means for its advancement,” he wrote. “Human civilization is now in the 21st century, and such a savage and outdated political device should be cast into the museums of history.”

China’s critics, however, do accuse the country of reaching across borders to kidnap its own dissidents.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have deteriorated significantly in recent years, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un never having met and believed to share mutual disdain, experts say.

In a sign that China’s patience might be running out, it rejected a shipment of coal from North Korea on Monday, a day after the ballistic missile test, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.

Fudan University’s Wang said that China had recently received intelligence suggesting some people in North Korean leadership circles have been suggesting sacrificing ties with China, and trying to establish closer links with the United States, Japan and South Korea.

“The idea that China cannot be trusted and can only be used, that Japan has been the deadly enemy for hundreds of years but China has been the old enemy for thousands of years — that mentality still prevails in their internal party meetings and was inherited from Kim Jong Un’s grandfather,” he said.

In that context, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam could be a signal of the regime’s unhappiness with Beijing for supporting United Nations sanctions and of a desire to distance itself from China, he said.

Other experts say it is more likely that Kim Jong Nam was killed by the Southeast Asian underworld, or that — if Pyongyang was responsible — was more to do with the regime’s internal dynamics and paranoia than a desire to send a signal to the world.

Nevertheless, as commentator Ding Gang wrote in the Global Times, it has not made the task of reining in North Korea’s nuclear program any easier —and that’s not good news for China.

“North Korea’s nuclear facilities and missile bases are located near China’s border,” he wrote. “Once the situation in the Korean Peninsula spirals out of control, the facilities will be primary targets or the final fortress of North Korea's defense. Either way, the effects on China will be severe.”

The murder of Kim Jong Nam, he warned, could reinforce destabilizing calls for tougher action to force “regime change” in Pyongyang.

“People in the U.S., Japan and South Korea will more likely opt for hard-line approaches, which will trigger nuclear security problems,” he wrote. “We had better prepare for a nuclear emergency in North Korea rather than wasting our time discussing who is behind the assassination.”

Congcong Zhang and Jin Xin contributed to this report.

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