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Addressing Pyongyang’s covert lethality

By Liang Nah - posted Monday, 20 February 2017

The murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged eldest brother of current North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, on 13 February 2017 in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women using poison, who were allegedly instigated to assassinate the elder Kim, by DPRK espionage agents acting under orders from Jong-un, should come as no surprise to those familiar with the violent ways of the Kim regime.

While the use of foreigners (one of the killers is Indonesian while the other is Vietnamese) to do Pyongyang's "wet work" or covert killing is quite uncommon, the fact remains that such violence is beyond the pale of acceptable international conduct. Just as the Kim regime expects other states to respect the sovereignty of North Korean soil, so too should the former refrain from employing violence overseas. As such, Kim Jong-un should be strictly reminded that North Korean overseas activities must conform to established international ethnical norms, failure to adhere to this fundamental requirement leading to mandatory penalties or punishment, whose isolative impact will hurt the DPRK.

A reputation for state-driven terrorism


As earlier mentioned, Jong-nam's murder is not the first time that Pyongyang has ordered killings or bombings overseas. Indeed, the bloody trail of state initiated and directed terrorism began with the North's first Supreme Leader and Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who sent a team of DPRK special forces commandos to infiltrate the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, in order to attack Cheong Wa Dae, the official residence of the South Korean President also known as The Blue House, and kill then President Park Chung-hee, on 21 January 1968.

But even as the Blue House raid was unsuccessful, another assassination attempt on Park, supported by de facto North Korean representatives in Japan, assisting a lone Japanese born ethnic Korean gunman was carried out on 15 August 1974. This was also unsuccessful and resulted in the death of Park's wife, First Lady Yuk Young-soo.

Subsequently, North Korean overseas covert operations were entrusted to Kim's son, Kim Jong-il, the future Supreme Leader and father of Jong-un. Under Jong-il's leadership, the two most prominent terrorist acts carried out abroad were an assassination attempt on then South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan on 9 October 1983, carried out in Burmese capital of Rangoon, and the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 on 28 November 1987. In the first instance, explosives were planted in a mausoleum with the intent to kill President Chun but only managed to claim the lives of several ROK cabinet ministers. In the second case, two saboteurs, acting under direct orders from Jong-il, planted explosives on a Korean Air Boeing 707 flying from the Middle East carrying 115 passengers and crew who were mostly South Koreans. Korean Air Flight 858 exploded over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 on board.

A firm and resolute response is needed

As recent history shows, the Kim regime displays a disturbing lack of respect for the laws of other states, along with a blatant disregard for the fundamental value of human life, killing those it deems threatening, whether or not they are subject to the DPRK's territorial jurisdiction. Clearly, this cannot be allowed to continue.

Accordingly, states which have diplomatic relations with North Korea, especially those where Pyongyang maintains an embassy, ought to make it unequivocally clear to the North's ambassadors, that murder, kidnapping or any illegal activity by North Koreans or 3rd party foreign nationals under the influence of the former, will not be tolerated, and will be persecuted to the full extent of domestic law. Additionally and more importantly, it must be communicated to the Kim regime, through its diplomatic representatives, that the legally and morally reprehensible actions of the DPRK's covert action agencies carry a significant diplomatic cost. For example, in the wake of the earlier mentioned Rangoon mausoleum bombing of October 1983, Burma suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea.


In light of the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam on Malaysian soil, it can be seen that Kuala Lumpur has arrested and might well charge those involved in Jong-nam's murder (other than the earlier mentioned Vietnamese and Indonesian women, two males, one Malaysian and the other North Korean have been detained). However, in the interest of deterring Pyongyang from engaging in future lethal skulduggery, whether in Malaysia or elsewhere, Kuala Lumpur might want to seriously consider measures related to diplomatic censure to send the message that Malaysia takes its laws and sovereignty seriously.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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