Following the airport assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the question being asked by much of the world is, “Why?” And with China often regarded as a nation that might be able to exert pressure over Pyongyang’s actions, however, what impact could Jong Nam’s death have on China-North Korean relations?
The events surrounding Kim’s demise continue to evolve. Malaysian authorities state VX nerve agent was used to kill Kim. Police have also expanded their suspect list to include Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Malaysia, and two other North Koreans. Authorities also have asked Interpol to apprehend four North Koreans who left the country following the assault.
North Korea’s Central News Agency blamed Malaysia for the death and accused the country of an “unfriendly attitude.” Malaysia’s Defense Minister called similar remarks by the North’s Ambassador “rude.” Malaysian police say they have been “very fair” in their investigation.
While this event took place in Malaysia and involves a North Korean of the Kim leadership lineage, Kim Jong Nam lived in China following his 2001 failed attempt to enter Japan to visit Disneyland.
No definitive links have been made between the death of Kim and North Korea, but officials from the United States and South Korean believe that Pyongyang was behind the attack.
If proven true, what could be the effect on China-North Korean relations, since China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and ally?
Bilateral relations with North Korea have been “difficult at best,” so “China doesn’t like what it’s doing, but it’s been unwilling to implement pressure or implement the U.N. sanctions on North Korea,” said Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.
Bonnie Glaser, Senior Advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, observes, “I think you can add this alleged assassination of Kim Jong Nam to a long list of issues that are causing friction in the China-North Korean relationship.” She references recent events like ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
What to watch
Another factor that could be contributing to the friction between Pyongyang and Beijing is that Beijing “is looking for issues on which it can cooperate with the Trump Administration,” said Glaser.
The key thing to look for, says Rodger Baker, Stratfor Vice President of Strategic Analysis, is whether or not China feels North Korea’s actions are starting to undermine Beijing’s interests.
“The Chinese have long accepted many of the things North Korea does, primarily because, in the end, they don’t ultimately create a sense of risk for China itself. This has even gone to their nuclear program,” noted Baker.
“Perhaps the assassination of Kim Jong Nam goes beyond their anger at North Korea for the various missile and nuclear tests. We’ve seen China announce it would halt its coal imports from North Korea, but before they did that they had expedited a lot of shipments. Perhaps they had already reached the 2017 quota,” added Klingner.
With the Kim Jong Nam assassination conducted openly, Baker says that if North Korea once again finds itself listed on terrorism watch lists, China may be asked to treat Pyongyang accordingly.