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North Korea

Beijing likely to steer clear of murky saga of Kim Jong-nam murder

Wading into the killing of Kim Jong-nam would only antagonise North Korea, at a time when its missile programme is the leading concern, experts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 8:09am

Beijing will maintain its distance from the murky saga of the murder of the estranged elder brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in a bid to avoid further complicating its relations with its volatile neighbour, diplomatic sources and Chinese observers said.

It is not known whether the head of the reclusive state was involved in the killing of Kim Jong-nam, but even if the younger Kim was linked to the death, Beijing was expected to stay silent as any accusations would only drive Pyongyang further into isolation.

Beijing was more concerned about the development of the North’s nuclear missile programme, they said.

Uncertainty stalks China-N Korea ties with ‘assassination’ of Kim Jong-un’s pro-Beijing half-brother

China has issued only a single terse statement since the death of the elder Kim last week, saying it was closely monitoring the matter. Senior Chinese officials have meanwhile attended receptions held by Pyongyang’s diplomatic mission on the mainland commemorating Kim Jong-il’s birthday.

A diplomatic source said that given the “prudent” attitude Beijing preferred when handling North Korean matters, it was “improper for Beijing to make any premature comments”.

“The death traps Beijing further in a dilemma, since North Korea has become increasingly troublesome in relation to Pyongyang’s missile launch and nuclear weapons development activities,” the source said.

The elder Kim died on his way to hospital after being attacked in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport where he was boarding a flight to Macau. South Korean and United States officials believe he was killed by Pyongyang agents.

Another diplomatic source said Beijing would want to distance itself from the saga, even if evidence emerged that agents from the North were involved.

“Beijing could say this was an internal affair of North Korea and it has no intention of interfering,” the source said.

Beijing has been a staunch ally of Pyongyang and has a vested interest in regime stability in the totalitarian state. A toppling of the leadership would send an influx of refugees across their shared border and Beijing would lose a buffer zone it has long maintained to keep a US military presence off its doorstep.

Heat is on China after North Korean missile test

China was providing security for Kim Jong-nam in Macau, where he lived part of the time with one of his families, the South Korean spy agency has told lawmakers in Seoul.

But sources and observers said Beijing did not intend the elder Kim as a viable replacement if the current leadership was toppled. “In North Korea, nobody knows who Kim Jong-nam is and he has no power base in Pyongyang. What’s more, Beijing would badly damage its international image by doing so,” a source said.

Sun Xingjie, a Korean affairs expert at Jilin University, said the chances of the elder Kim returning to Pyongyang and filling a power vacuum were small.

For now Beijing’s top concern regarding Pyongyang would be the reclusive state’s missile launch.

The North carried out a test earlier this month, the first since US President Donald Trump took office, in a move that has added to a sense of urgency for a US-backed anti-missile system in South Korea.

Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement after the launch: “It is time to hold North Korea accountable – not with our words, but with our actions.”

Beijing maintains that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system poses a threat to its own military capabilities and undermines security in the region.

“Before the missile test, China has been telling the world that it could not control North Korea but no one believed it,” Sun said. “Now the whole world knows that China is unable to control Pyongyang, which is a dangerous ­reality.”