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China Monitors Assassination Probe Of North Korean Kim Jong Nam

Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seen here in a May 2001 file photo, was alleged assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport last week.
Shizuo Kambayashi
Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seen here in a May 2001 file photo, was alleged assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport last week.

Malaysia and North Korea are wrangling over whether a man who died at the Kuala Lumpur airport last week is indeed Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Among the many countries trying to figure out what to make of it is North Korea's neighbor and sole ally, China.

Officially, China has said little except that it is closely monitoring the situation. But in China, Kim Jong Nam's apparent assassination has triggered a debate about what it means and how to respond.

Commentator and former journalist Deng Yuwen.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Commentator and former journalist Deng Yuwen.

Commentator and former journalist Deng Yuwen argues that decades of supporting North Korea has been a losing deal for China, and the assassination of Kim Jong Nam is the perfect opportunity for Beijing to cut its losses.

"In the past, whatever North Korea would do, China would pick up the tab for it. The cost was huge, but the pay-off was next to nothing," Deng said.

Beijing has shielded Pyongyang from criticism of its human rights record. It has propped up its rickety economy.

But the biggest cost of all, Deng says, was the roughly half-a-million Chinese troops killed or wounded defending the north in the Korean War.

Avoiding that conflict could have altered the path of China's development, Deng says, and possibly allowed Beijing to end the Chinese civil war by seizing Taiwan from Chiang Kai-shek, who retreated to the island with his defeated nationalist troops in 1949.

Despite all this, North Korea has ignored Beijing's warnings not to proceed with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. While it is unwilling to trigger instability or regime collapse, Beijing has joined in several rounds of U.N. sanctions on the north.

Deng says Beijing may also be unhappy about Kim Jong Nam's assassination.

They may be thinking "we're running interference for you, and this is what you do behind our backs," he says.

Kim lived in Beijing for several years beginning in the mid-1990s, and Deng argues that he could potentially have headed an alternative North Korean government, that might have been more liberal and China-friendly than his brother's.

Deng points out that as Kim Jong Il's eldest son, dynastic logic would put Kim Jong Nam first in line to succeed his father. His father sidelined him, though, after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001.

Deng says Kim Jong Nam is thought to have had contacts with Chinese elites, and may have been more receptive to their suggestions that North Korea should follow China's path and implement market-oriented reforms.

That would likely have been Kim Jong Un's motive in getting rid of his sibling.

"If, after the collapse of North Korea, China wanted to establish a stable new regime," Deng said, "then Kim Jong Nam would obviously have been a card for China to play."

Deng says Beijing would never admit to contemplating its neighbor's collapse or supporting a rival ruler, and he admits that many Chinese still support their longtime ally.

Rather than believe that Kim Jong Un ordered a hit on this half-brother, they'd be more inclined to believe that Seoul or Washington did it, to provide them with an excuse to attack or isolate the North.

China's Global Times tabloid, known for its commercially successful jingoism, dismissed speculation that Beijing could play Kim Jong Nam as a political card as ludicrous, because it "doesn't conform to the logic of contemporary Chinese diplomacy."

Personally, Deng has paid a high price for criticizing China's policy toward its neighbor. He was fired from his job in 2013 as deputy editor at the Study Times, a newspaper put out by the Central Party School, the Communist Party's top training facility for its officials.

Deng notes that on Saturday, China announced it was banning all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year. Coal exports are one of the few ways the North has to earn foreign currency.

Beijing says the ban is related to U.N. sanctions. Beijing previously allowed the North to export some coal as a form of humanitarian assistance, provided it was not connected to its nuclear or missile programs. But Beijing has offered no explanation of why the humanitarian assistance is no longer allowed.

Deng notes that after Pyongyang's latest missile test, and before a phone conversation between President Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, China announced a list of items with both military and civilian uses that it was banning for export to North Korea.

But Deng says that Beijing not announcing the coal import ban until later suggests that China's leadership may have been signaling its displeasure at the killing of Kim Jong Nam.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.