China Loses a Friend, and Leverage, With North Korean Murder

  • Kim Jong Nam, killed in Malaysia, had close links to China
  • North Korea could be area for increased U.S.-China cooperation

Kim Jong-Un's Half-Brother Murdered at Malaysia Airport

The mysterious death of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother removed a potential avenue for China to press the North Korean leader to rein in his nuclear ambitions.

Kim Jong Nam, 45, lived out of North Korea for many years and had close links to China. He started families in both Beijing and Macau, and had the protection of Chinese authorities, according to a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed on intelligence reports.

People watch news reports of Kim Jong-Nam in Seoul on Feb. 14.

Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

His murder at a Malaysian airport this week in circumstances akin to a spy novel adds to concern that Pyongyang’s actions risk a major geopolitical miscalculation. Kim Jong Un’s repeated nuclear and missile tests -- most recently on Sunday -- have caused unease both in the U.S. and China, and put Beijing in a difficult spot as North Korea’s prime benefactor and ally.

While Kim Jong Nam was out of favor in Pyongyang for years before he was murdered -- his brother reportedly had a standing order for his execution -- he would have been a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un, and was an implicit point of leverage for China while he was alive.

“Kim Jong Un has been testing China’s patience,” said Deng Yuwen, a public affairs commentator in Beijing and a former deputy editor of a journal of the Communist Party. “If Beijing wouldn’t want to see the total collapse of the Kim regime, it would hope for the replacement of Kim Jong Un. This is why Kim was increasingly worried about his half-brother."

To read about how most of Kim Jong Un’s main rivals are now dead, click here.

Beijing provides most of North Korea’s food and fuel. The nations had solid relations from the 1950s, when they fought together in the Korean War. Leaders from both countries often say they have a bond built with blood. When asked at a regular briefing on Thursday whether the case would affect ties, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the two countries “have a friendly tradition.”

Still, ties became strained after Kim’s ascension in 2011, a year before President Xi Jinping took power in China. The two have never met as leaders.

High-level dialogue was also cut back after the 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was an advocate for Chinese-style economic reform in North Korea and had been the major go-to person for leaders in Beijing. Kim Jong Nam was raised by Jang’s wife.

China has watched North Korea’s nuclear development with concern. Its leaders released a new list of items banned for export to North Korea in January, to comply with a new round of United Nations sanctions and address international criticism -- including from U.S. President Donald Trump -- that it isn’t doing enough to rein Kim in.

Trade Pressure

Trade data show that relations have cooled. Total commerce has fallen for two straight years to $5.4 billion in 2016, according to numbers released by China’s Ministry of Commerce. While China imported 14.5 percent more North Korean coal last year despite the sanctions, Yonhap News Agency reported this week that Beijing had rejected a $1 million shipment a day after North Korea’s latest missile test.

Even so, it would be hard for China to totally abandon North Korea, which it has long seen as a geopolitical buffer to U.S. forces, said Yang Xiyu, former director of the China Foreign Ministry’s Office for Korean Peninsula Issues. China is wary that the U.S. and South Korea will view the murder as a sign of internal instability in North Korea and seek to challenge Kim further, he said.

“It becomes even harder for China to restrain North Korea with a delicate bilateral relation like this,” Yang said. “Beijing won’t be happy with the death of Kim Jong Nam, but it will not overact either.”

Kim Jong Nam was seen in Beijing as an elite who envied the success of China’s economic reforms, Yang said. The eldest son of former dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly traveled with his father in 2001 to Shanghai, a coastal city that spearheaded China’s market reforms, and met with senior officials in information technology.

Missile Defense

Part of China’s concern with North Korea’s behavior is a U.S. plan to deploy a high-altitude missile defense platform known as Thaad in South Korea later this year. China opposes the system, which it says could be used to counter its own weapons.

China would be more willing to prod North Korea if Trump addresses its worries about Thaad and reduces military drills with South Korea, according to Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow at the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

“The Kim regime is a real security risk for China, and the Chinese interests will be better served by divesting from it than by continuing to enable it,” Shi said. “If the U.S. side really treats the Korea peninsula as one of its top international priorities, there is a lot of room for the Chinese-U.S. cooperation.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, and Ting Shi

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