Kim Jong-un has murdered his half-brother in Malaysia. Or, at least, he ordered the assassination of his brother. In a violation of a slough of international laws, North Korean operatives crossed into Malaysia, hunted down the half-brother, and murdered him. Right now, there is a massive manhunt going on in Malaysia looking for the suspects. The real question is why? Why would Kim Jong-un murder his half-brother, who had roundly renounced any claim to the North Korean throne? Because Kim Jong-un is weak politically and subject to overthrow.
The fact is that Kim Jong-un has never really had a solid grip on power. Initially, when he assumed power, many hoped that he might be the answer to creating greater stability both within North Korea and in North Korea’s relations with the outside world. Yet, two very early moves into his reign disabused many observers of these, frankly, unrealistic hopes.
When Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il died, the father was involved in a new round of negotiations with the West over North Korea’s highly controversial nuclear arms program. Responding to a letter from the recently inaugurated President Barack Obama in 2009, Kim Jong-il opened up what might have been the most promising round of negotiations (at least according to the Obama Administration). But, he died during the talks. When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father he immediately ended the talks and took North Korea down a path of increasing aggression toward the West, notably their democratic neighbor of South Korea.
Meanwhile, upon his rise to power, Kim Jong-un killed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, a leading and influential member of the North Korean Military Commission. Many observers were confounded by this move, since not only was his uncle a highly respected member of the North Korean elite (whom Kim Jong-il relied on heavily during his two decade reign), but he was also considered China’s man inside the North Korean court. The uncle was seen as a moderating influence on the more antagonistic actions of the young Kim Jong-un. Plus, his status as a friend of China, North Korea’s patron on the international stage, made many assume that the uncle was protected. Indeed, when Kim Jong-un killed his uncle, many observers assumed that China would start to abandon their North Korean ward. Unfortunately, however, this was simply not the case.
In much the same way, Kim Jong-un’s half brother was assumed to be off of the mad North Korean dictator’s radar. Not only had his half-brother renounced any claim to North Korea, but he was also protected by Chinese security services. The presence of Chinese elements protecting him led many to assume, yet again, that a member of the North Korean elite was protected. Kim Jong-un, as per the pattern, proved them wrong again. In fact, the presence of Chinese elements protecting the half-brother made the poor man a greater target than he ordinarily would have been.
The rise of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States has fundamentally altered many of the longstanding strategic assumptions. The addition of former Marine Corps General Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense has only contributed to a much-needed reassessment of the strategic calculus of many states around the world. Whereas most states figured that they could get away with a good deal during the Obama Administration (and, to be sure, they did), the continual hawkish statements made by both President Trump and key members of his national security team may likely have disabused several actors of such notions.
In particular, recent back-and-forth within the Trump Administration regarding America’s relationship with China have likely placed a healthy degree of fear within China’s Politburo. You see, for decades, the United States has always reaffirmed the “One-China” Policy which recognized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the only government of China (thereby denying Taiwan its full independence). During the Trump transition period, President Trump received a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s recently elected pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen, placing into question the Trump Administration’s commitment to the One-China Policy.
Tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China increased during this period. Not long ago, however, President Trump took a call from China’s President Xi Jinping and afterward reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to the One-China Policy. Yet, this did not happen in a vacuum. Indeed, all throughout the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump was consistent in his calls to take a tougher stance on states like China or North Korea, in order to make better deals in America’s favor.
One such deal that Mr. Trump has been seeking vis-a-vis China has been a settlement in the North Korean issue. For decades, since the end of the Korean War, the roguish behavior of the North Korean state has plagued stability in the world. The U.S.-North Korean conflict has been a terribly expensive and destabilizing holdover from the long-dead Cold War era. Given that North Korea has had a long history of aggression against its neighbors, coupled with its obsession over 3 different leaders, for acquiring nuclear arms, it seems likely that the Trump Administration wants to end the tensions.
China, it has long been assumed is a key player in resolving this long-standing dispute. It has always been assumed that there is little daylight between China and North Korea. Indeed, I have long suspected that the divisions between China and North Korea are not as great as many Western spectators hope. But, to be sure, there are clearly differences.
North Korea is the rabid dog that cannot be controlled. China, I suspect, is less sanguine about controlling North Korea as America hopes and is simply more interested in channeling North Korea’s aggression away from itself and toward the enemies that China shares with North Korea. Also, they fear a collapse of North Korea that eventuates in U.S. troops right across the border from China and that sends a massive refugee wave headed toward China. Remember, China already has problems with handling the massive inflows of Chinese citizens moving from the Chinese hinterland into the cities, in search of jobs. Throw in a ceaseless wave of North Korean refugees and you’ve got yourself quite a destabilizing cocktail for Chinese leaders.
All of this combines to present a case whereby China cannot control North Korea. Their protection of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, I believe, was setting the stage for eventually conducting a quiet regime change in North Korea. Kim Jong-un, unlike his father, has never really had a firm control over his country. This is why he conducted a series of attacks against South Korean citizens living on a disputed island, it is why he ordered the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, it is why he continues testing ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, and it is why he refuses to abandon his family’s pursuit of nuclear arms.
China, after having witnessed the ire that Trump visited upon them in his first days as President, was likely seeking to offer stability on the Korean peninsula as a way of settling tensions with the Trump Administration. The Chinese may have been trying to settle tensions with the U.S., China’s largest trading partner at a time when China’s economy has been seriously contracting.
The Chinese do not want the North Korean state to implode, they do not want a unified Korean peninsula, and they definitely do not want to see a refugee wave coming across their border with North Korea. They may have been planning to assassinate Kim Jong-un and replace him with his more sane, less unpredictable, half-brother.
Now, however, those hopes have been dashed. Kim Jong-un is keenly aware of the weakness of his regime. He has neither abandoned his pursuit of nuclear arms nor has he stopped threatening the South, Japan, and the United States. North Korea continues to build up its forces at unprecedented levels.
The weakness of his grip on power and the growing North Korean nuclear capabilities, as well as the fact that their Chinese benefactor is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the North Koreans, could very well lead Kim Jong-un to make a stunning gambit militarily. Indeed, I believe that these events signal that the world is closer to war with North Korea than at any other time in the last sixty years.
And, just like the first Korean War, the United States military is not fully prepared for the kind of war that will be waged. In this case, however, the impact could be far worst than the first Korean War: it will likely rope in not only regional powers, such as South Korea, Japan, and China, but it will have truly global implications.
In any event, the solution is for the Trump Administration to double down on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ plans for readiness at the Pentagon. We must also embrace the President’s calls for modernizing the nuclear force as well as accepting that the military needs to be quantitatively larger than it has ever been in the last thirty years. We must also fashion a policy of coercive diplomacy with the North Koreans. For instance, every time they plan to launch or do launch a nuclear arms-capable missile, the U.S. must simply launch a retaliatory strike against the North, thereby increasing the costs on the Kim regime for engaging in such reckless behavior.
There should be no doubt, however, the U.S. and North Korea are closer than ever to war.