Seoul, South Korea | AFP | The spectacular assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother — smeared in the face with a banned nerve agent — made headlines around the world but two years later its organisers have escaped accountability, analysts say.
Malaysian prosecutors dropped a murder charge Monday against the Vietnamese woman who was the only remaining suspect in the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.
Doan Thi Huong is expected to walk free next month after she admitted “causing injury”, and her Indonesian partner was released last month.
Several North Koreans are believed to have been involved in the murder but four fled Malaysia the same day, and authorities allowed the others to leave within weeks amid a diplomatic standoff with Pyongyang.
The dead man — long exiled from his homeland after falling from grace following a bizarre attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland — was ostracised again in death, analysts say, with no-one willing to seek justice for him.
“Nobody tried to fight for Kim Jong Nam’s rights,” said Shin Beom-cheol, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
When a person is killed abroad, his or her government usually steps in, Shin said, but added: “In Kim Jong Nam’s case, North Korea did not exercise the right for diplomatic protection — rather, it was the one who killed him.”
And while the United States and South Korea might have taken on that role in the past, they are likely to remain on the sidelines following Monday’s developments to avoid jeopardising their ongoing if stuttering dialogue with the North.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has long backed engagement with Pyongyang, held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year.
And Kim has met US President Donald Trump twice since the assassination, but the human rights abuses the North is widely accused of were not a key issue at any of the summits.
“As for Malaysia, its diplomatic relations with Indonesia and Vietnam were far more important than serving justice for Kim Jong Nam,” Shin added.
– Bloodline –
Pyongyang has never admitted to killing Kim Jong Nam — it says the dead man was a North Korean citizen called Kim Chol, and that the accusations are an attempt to smear it.
As their father Kim Jong Il’s eldest son, Jong Nam would have a claim to be the legitimate successor in a still hierarchical society where traditional values often hold sway.
After he was sidelined he led a luxurious but marginal existence in the Chinese territory of Macau, only for his killing to be widely seen as the fatal outcome of a power game in the regime’s ruling dynasty.
The Kim family tree is littered with figures who met violent deaths or were forced into exile after being marked out by a regime which has never loosened its grip on power in three generations.
Jong Nam’s death evoked the fate of Jang Song Thaek, the young ruler’s uncle by marriage once seen as number two in the system, who was executed in Pyongyang in 2013 for treason and corruption in a brutal display of who was now in charge.
Analysts warn the final outcome of the Kim Jong Nam case could encourage his killers to target his son Kim Han Sol, who is believed to be under US protection.
“There is definitely a chance that this kind of impunity will embolden North Korea to commit similar acts in the future,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of international studies at Handong University.
Kim Han Sol, in his early 20s, is believed to have graduated from his studies at the Sciences Po university in France but his current whereabouts are unknown.
A shadowy dissident group known as the Cheollima Civil Defence posted an online video of him months after the killing and claimed it had guaranteed his safety.
Recent media reports have suggested the mystery organisation has links to US intelligence.
If Han Sol is under US protection it would be hard for Pyongyang to mount a similar attack, Park said, but urged his protectors to take extra precautions.
“Kim Han Sol still remains a very serious challenge for the North Korean leadership,” he added.
“He is the rightful heir if you consider the tradition of the eldest and the Paektu bloodline.”