Deep cracks appear between China and North Korea after the macabre murder of the half-brother of Kim Jong-un in Malaysia.
The Godfather is a Hollywood classic based on the Sicilian mafia with twists and turns that make for riveting viewing. In this movie about the Corleone clan, Michael gets his brother Fredo shot even as the latter is praying to Mother Mary while fishing on a lake. It seems whatever Hollywood can do, North Korea can do better.
On February 13, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed rather spectacularly at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia by two rather innocent looking women. A Vietnamese woman covered the portly Kim Jong-nam’s head with a cloth laced with VX nerve agent, while another Indonesian woman claims she was paid $90 to smear Kim’s face with “baby oil” as part of a prank. This baby oil was most likely VX, which is the most toxic of all known chemical warfare agents. VX is a clear, amber-colored, tasteless and odorless oily liquid that is 100 times more potent than sarin. A drop of VX on the skin can kill any person within minutes. Therefore, this nerve agent is banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
So far, only Russia and the United States have admitted to owning VX stockpiles. This attack demonstrates that they do not have a duopoly. It also reveals that Kim Jong-un might look rather less glamorous than Michael Corleone but is far more ruthless. In 2013, the pudgy North Korean leader executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and mentor, denouncing him as “despicable human scum” and “a traitor to the nation for all ages.” Such is Kim Jong-un’s reputation for brutality that rumors emerged of the execution of his uncle by feeding him to 120 hungry attack dogs.
Regardless of how it was done, Jang Song-thaek’s execution was part of a brutal purge that would make Joseph Stalin proud. Public executions are common. Senior officials have been gunned down by anti-aircraft guns, reportedly for sins of omission and commission as trivial as falling asleep during meetings. Of the 340 killed by Kim Jong-un, 140 are senior figures from his own party. The most recent assassination is the most spectacular yet. Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo and Robert Towne could not have dreamt the way Kim Jong-nam was killed. Fact is yet again proving to be stranger than fiction.
Kim Il-sung, the patriarch of the North Korean ruling family, proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. Like many communist bosses, Kim Il-sung had to wade through rivers of blood to the throne. His “Juche-oriented socialist state” is an autarkic poverty-ridden backwater where people are indoctrinated from an early age to venerate him and his clan. As Michael Madden brilliantly explains, the Kim clan is riddled with feuds as family members compete for “attention, money, power and prestige.”
Kim Il-sung was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il, but not without facing a challenge from his uncle Kim Yong-ju and his younger half-brother Kim Pyong-il. Instead of executing them, he merely sidelined them. This was rather humane for a man who was the subject of an evaluation by psychologists Frederick Coolidge and Daniel Segal who found the North Korean dictator to exhibit the “big six” personality disorders: sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal.
As if this wasn’t enough, this “diminutive playboy” watched Hollywood movies by the thousands, had people kidnapped from foreign shores, and feasted on lobsters delivered by air to his private armored train using silver chopsticks even as his countrymen were dying of famine by the thousands.
Clearly, Kim Jong-un has decided to outdo his father. Even family members are not off the table. In some ways, he is a modern-day Aurangzeb, the infamous Mughal emperor who imprisoned his father, killed his brothers and exiled his son to acquire a vice-like grip on power. Unlike Aurangzeb, Kim Jong-un has sent a signal not only to his cronies who might turn disloyal, but also to his opponents and enemies abroad.
First, the North Korean dictator has indicated that his country has VX. This implies that it must have other chemical and biological weapons in addition to its nuclear weapons and various missiles. Most conveniently, it is not a party to the CWC.
Second, Kim Jong-un has demonstrated that he is willing to use a weapon of mass destruction in a public place in the very heart of Asia. This implies that the North Korean tyrant has no limits. Kim Jong-un is willing to do what it takes to stay in the saddle. Anyone anywhere can be killed anytime.
Finally, the chubby North Korean third generation ruler has proved that he is supremely confident, and neither the US nor China can restrain him. Kim Jong-nam, the English, French, Russian, Chinese and Korean-speaking resident of Macau, might have been a North Korean leader that both the US and China could have lived with. The sad end to his lonely life is in no one’s interest but Pyongyang’s.
GODFATHER CHINA IS NOT TOO HAPPY
Kim Jong-nam’s death is a massive embarrassment to China. After all, he was living for years under Chinese protection in Macau. Prior to Macau, Kim Jong-nam lived in Beijing and the Chinese reportedly liked his low-profile lifestyle that gave them little cause for complaint. Furthermore, he is their second protégé to be killed by the callow North Korean ruler. Jang Song-thaek, the brother-in-law rumored to be ripped to shreds by dogs, was close to Beijing and the point man for making economic arrangements with its big neighbor.
Beginning with the Korean War of 1950-53, China has acted as the godfather to North Korea. It has provided military, political and economic support to this pariah nation for decades. Since South Korea is a US ally, North Korea provides a useful buffer for the Middle Kingdom. American marines patrol the border between the two Koreas instead of standing eyeball to eyeball with Red Army soldiers on the Chinese border. Besides, a pesky and prickly ally constantly needles Uncle Sam and provides Beijing some leverage in its dealings with Washington.
Those advantages might be drying up. China reportedly feels betrayed by Kim Jong-nam’s assassination. It has clearly lost face, a fact that President Xi Jinping is unlikely to take too lightly. In any case, North Korea has been irking China repeatedly in recent times. On February 12, the country claimed it had successfully tested a new ballistic missile in violation of United Nations (UN) resolutions. The next day, China rejected a shipment of coal worth $1 million at Wenzhou on the grounds that it contained a higher than permissible level of mercury. After Kim Jong-nam’s murder, China has suspended imports of coal for the rest of the year.
This is a big deal because China has so far turned a Nelson’s eye to UN sanctions. Now, new sanctions limit coal imports to the lower figure of the price of 7.5 million tons or $400.9 million. In 2016, China imported 22.4 million tons of high-grade anthracite coal, mainly for its steel mills. This was up by 14.5% compared to 2015 and comprised 40% of the total North Korean exports to China. In fact, 90% of North Korea’s external trade is with China. Therefore, China’s tightening of the sanctions screw hurts.
Hence it is only natural that the Hermit Kingdom has lashed out against the Middle Kingdom, accusing it of “mean behavior” and “dancing to the tune of the US.” Relations between the two countries were never entirely harmonious even during the days of Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung. The Chinese have always seen Koreans as vassals, while the latter see the former as historic enemies. Now, deep cracks have appeared in their friendship.
Chinese academics often suggest that their country should jettison North Korea. Its netizens criticize the Hermit Kingdom with aplomb in stark contrast to even four years ago. President Xi does not respect the dandy young dictator in Pyongyang who has neither been invited to China nor visited it since he took charge. China is certainly embarking on a new policy vis-à-vis North Korea.
As Conn Hallinan explains, China is anxious about the Asia Pivot launched by former US President Barack Obama. The May 29, 2016, edition of The World This Week examined the Obama Doctrine, which involved the US pivoting away from the Middle East to Asia and managing the rise of China. Under President Donald Trump, this might turn into confronting the rise of the Middle Kingdom. Xi has plenty on his plate with a slowing Chinese economy and the growing mood for protectionism in the US. This is not a time when China can afford North Korean headaches. Therefore, its leaders have to control what is in effect “an unruly client state.”
Yet there are limits to what Chinese leaders can do. First, Beijing does share some nostalgic and ideological ties with Pyongyang that go back to 1950. Second, as mentioned earlier, American troops on Chinese borders are the Middle Kingdom’s recurring nightmare. So, North Korea is still a useful buffer for all its flaws. Finally, the last thing China wants is chaos at its doorstep. If there is economic collapse in North Korea, then refugees would stream across the border. Besides, if North Korea implodes the spillover would be felt in China. The Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear plants are near its Chinese border and Beijing dreads the specter of Fukushima-type disasters, not to mention VX and the like getting into the wrong hands.
North Korea is messy, complicated and unpredictable. The wantonly brutal Kim Jong-un is increasingly more of a liability than an asset for China. Beijing can only hope that its so-called ally does not cause too much of a disaster.
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