A stain that won’t come outCaptain Kang Min-chol, an agent from North Korean military’s reconnaissance bureau, lived an unfortunate life. He and other agents concealed bombs in the roof of a building at the mausoleum to commemorate Aung San in Myanmar in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan during his visit on Oct. 9, 1983. The attempt, however, failed as they pushed the button mistakenly during a rehearsal. Kang was convicted of killing 17, including cabinet misters of the South.
Of the three agents sent from the North, two died during the missions to arrest them. Kang also made a suicide attempt with a hand grenade, but only lost an arm. The reconnaissance bureau gave him the means to commit suicide to conceal his identity. After realizing that he was considered expendable, Kang turned against the North. In turn, the North Korean regime, which strongly denied its crime, turned away from him. He was sentenced to life and died in prison in 2008 after serving 25 years, the longest period for a foreign prisoner in the country.
The murder of Kim Jong-nam, half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, on Feb. 13, 2017 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia vividly demonstrates the North’s improved terrorism tactics over the past 34 years. Instead of using special agents from the military, an agent from the Ministry of State Security, an intelligence agency, was dispatched, and diplomats were also mobilized.
Through a meticulously planned operation, four key suspects have escaped to Pyongyang. The North shocked the international community by using VX nerve agent, a deadly chemical material. It also used women from other countries and attempted to disguise it as a murder by contract to avoid links to Pyongyang.
But the assassination appears to be a big misstep by the young ruler. A former veteran intelligence agent from the North said it was flawed in three key elements of an assassination: time, location and method.
First, the North underestimated the Malaysian authorities. Since the late 18th century, the country was under the control or influence of England. Many elite members of the administration, prosecution and police studied in London and were exposed to advanced systems.
The country has a strong belief in the rule of law because of this background. The law enforcement authorities conducted a speedy investigation after suspicions were raised about the death of Kim Jong-nam, arrested those involved and named the North as a suspect. If the initial investigation failed, or the Malaysian authorities handed the body to the North under Pyongyang’s pressure, the case would have faced a dead end.
Second, the North made a mistake by believing that a murder conducted at a busy international airport in a broad daylight would not be investigated. The world is under heavy surveillance by CCTVs and tight monitoring networks. The North probably planned to make Kim Jong-nam suffer a fatal shock after he boarded the plane by using a tiny amount of VX. But that calculation missed the mark. The North argued that the Malaysian authority first concluded the death was a heart attack, but later changed to a murder by poison. That’s not much of an argument.
Third, the explosive personality of the North’s supreme leader was suspected as the motive of the crime. Kim Jong-nam was once considered first in line in the North’s dynastic power succession because he was the eldest son of Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un must have been jealous of him. As speculation grew that the half brother was being protected by China as an alternative leader to replace him, Kim Jong-un must have been enraged. Still, he went too far to use a means and method that were sure to trigger the outrage of the international community.
Kim Jong-un visited a unit of the Pyongyang Defense Command a few days ago and ordered them to protect the key leadership. But the real enemy is not outside — it is inside his own heart and inside his own regime. In the aftermath of the assassination, the North’s elite are reportedly agitated, and key members of the regime are harboring hostility toward Kim Jong-un. Four years ago, he executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek. He purged Kim Won-hong, who initiated the execution of Jang, earlier this year. The carnage simply goes on — and that could ultimately lead to chaos.
Sonjuk Bridge in Kaesong is the place where Jeong Mong-ju of Goryeo was killed by Yi Bang-won, the son of Joseon’s founder Yi Song-gye. Jeong was also known by his pen name Poeun and the red mark on the stone bridge was called the blood stain of Poeun. The killing from 625 years ago is remembered by history.
The cruel face of the Kim Jong-un regime was revealed to the world when he decided to assassinate his half brother in a foreign country to mark the 75th anniversary of the birthday of his late father. The bloody family discord of Pyongyang is a clear prelude to the fall of North Korea’s Kim dynasty.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 3, Page 32.
*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.