WASHINGTON - The apparent assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half brother reflects "instability" and "uncertainty" in the North Korean leadership, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
"It really confirms our worst suspicions about the regime in North Korea," Panetta told VOA on Thursday, when asked what conclusions he would draw if Pyongyang was confirmed as being responsible.
"He clearly is somebody who will not hesitate to kill anyone who either displeases him or if he suspects that individual of having opinions that are not in line with the leader," said the former Pentagon chief, referring to a series of purges the North Korean leader has carried out.
Kim Jong Nam, 45, died February 13 after allegedly being poisoned by two women at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Malaysian police said Friday that the poison used to kill Kim was the VX nerve agent, which is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which North Korea never signed.
In an email sent Friday, a U.S. State Department official told VOA the U.S. is "always willing to help partners with law enforcement cooperation in the context of our efforts to combat transnational crime and support the rule of law."
While the investigation is still underway, police have arrested the women and one North Korean national. They are seeking seven other North Koreans, including one diplomat in the Malaysian capital, for questioning.
South Korea believes Kim Jong Un ordered the killing of his half brother. North Korea has denied responsibility, accusing South Korea and Malaysia of plotting to have it blamed for the death.
Sign of instability
Kim Jong Un has executed or deposed of senior officials and close aides, including his uncle, in what has often been described as a "reign of terror."
According to Panetta, Kim Jong Nam's death is another reminder that the North Korean leader is "unpredictable and vicious."
"If this is ultimately proven true, I think it only confirms the intelligence we have on the leader of North Korea," said Panetta, who also served as the head of CIA.
Once deemed the legitimate heir to North Korea's ruling regime, Kim Jong Nam was known to be favored by China.
Christine Wormuth, former undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Defense Department, said Kim's death could be seen as a snub to Beijing.
"One could read [it] as a sign that Kim Jong Un is basically showing the Chinese that he can reach all the way to Malaysia and take out the potential successor that China might have preferred," Wormuth told VOA.
Several days after Kim's assassination, China announced it would suspend imports of North Korean coal for the rest of 2017. The North's coal exports account for about one-third of the country's total export income, generating an estimated $1 billion a year for the regime, according to U.S. officials. In an apparent protest against China's ban, North Korea's state media on Thursday harshly criticized China without mentioning its name. It accused China of "dancing to the tune" of the United States.
Panetta said he thought Chinese leaders had long been concerned about Kim Jong Un's behavior and that the incident in Malaysia would further isolate his country.
"So for that reason, I think it's very important for us to continue to work with China," the former intelligence chief said.
Jon Wolfsthal, senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation in the Obama administration, told VOA this week that the Chinese move against the North could be a "sign that China is less comfortable than it used to be with North Korean behavior," which creates room for the U.S. to put more pressure on the North.
The news of the killing came amid heightened tensions over the North's recent missile test, which took place a day before Kim died.
Reinstatement of sanctions
Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for returning North Korea to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington removed Pyongyang from the list in October 2008 as part of a nuclear deal in which the communist state agreed to disable a plutonium plant and allow some inspections.
"Removing North Korea from the state sponsor of terrorism list was a mistake," Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement released to VOA by his office. "That's why I am working on legislation that calls for North Korea to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism."
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, is also calling for the reinstatement of the North to the list. "The murder of Kim Jong Un's half brother is yet another reminder of North Korea's brutality," he said.
VOA's Cho Eunjung contributed to this report.