Nobody should doubt who killed Kim Jong-nam, the estranged older half-brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur’s airport earlier this month. Sure, the immediate culprit were the young women who grabbed the elder brother from behind at the airport and wiped his face with a poisoned cloth. But they were what intelligence officers call “lizard’s tails,” people who can be disposed of after an assignment is over. The new revelation that the poison involved was VX nerve gas – a substance banned under the international Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1997 and 2005 – changes everything, and nothing.
Kim Jong-nam was harmless, a playboy living in Macau who had gone into exile after being caught trying to enter Japan in 2001 to visit Tokyo Disneyland. That the portly Mr. Kim had used the name Pang Xiong, Chinese for “fat bear,” on a fake Dominican Republic passport establishes his character clearly enough.
In contrast, understated humor isn’t exactly what distinguishes the now 33-year-old man who succeeded his father as North Korea’s ruler in 2011. Follow the timeline. In 2013, Kim Jong-un arranged for the execution of his uncle and closest advisor, Mr. Jang, as part of a blood purge of anybody who might threaten his hold on power. In 2014, how did Sony Pictures fare in the run-up to its release of The Interview, a comedy about an assignation attempt on Kim Jong-un? Not too well, given a cyberattack, leaked emails, and embarrassed Sony executives initially halting the movie’s release.
It’s just not natural for somebody to be characterized both by eyes glinting with joy and eyes narrowed in cold fury.
Not one to be placated easily, North Korea’s ruler almost monolithically veers between two primary emotions: anger and happiness. When Mr. Kim isn’t cackling with mirth as he inspects military hardware or factory output, he scowls. While the old saying, when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, has struck fear in more than one husband, Mr. Kim has put not only his country on edge. In reality, the entire world is watching and wondering what he’ll do next.
It’s just not natural for somebody to be characterized both by eyes glinting with joy and eyes narrowed in cold fury. Ever watchful and on guard is the one consistency. That, and North Korea’s ever expanding nuclear weapons capabilities. The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is becoming irrelevant as tests prove North Korea can send its missiles in increasingly longer flights. A cloth doused with nerve gas is but a proxy for a nuclear-tipped missile.
Joyful people have a tendency to play fast and loose with the details. Angry people hit out. Reliably erratic, Mr. Kim may have met his match in Donald Trump should America’s new leader choose to diplomatically engage with North Korea. For the world’s sake, we can only hope that their (most likely) indirect contact goes better than it did for Fat Bear. For the elder half-brother who never even once met his homeland’s new feudal leader, the ending was quick and merciless. On the way to the hospital, Fat Bear ’s last words were “Very painful, very painful.”
Kim Jong-nam’s death in Malaysia changes everything by signaling that North Korea’s ruler will carry his grievances across borders and strike in public. But at the same time, the murder changes nothing when it comes to Kim Jong-un’s basic emotional make-up. Note the willingness to hit hard, only to then laugh it off by having a North Korean government organization say the real responsibility for whomever may have been poisoned “rests with the government of Malaysia.” After all, the lucky guy didn’t die in Pyongyang, right, and who can dispute that?