As I contemplate both the competence and the incompetence with which North Korea (probably) executed the murder of Kim Jong-nam, I can’t help reflecting on how it often seems to combine the guile and ruthlessness of SPECTRE with the executive competence of Dr. Evil. On one hand, the plot worked with ruthless efficiency. The target is dead. A potential Pu Yi is removed from the scene, and its terrorist objectives have been successful, at least in part. The South Korean government will have to step up its measures to protect high-profile North Korean defectors, and Thae Yong-ho has canceled his public appearances indefinitely. (Admittedly, things don’t always go so smoothly for the RGB.)
Now, weigh those benefits against the costs. Ten people, including eight North Koreans and two local patsies (or agents) have been exposed. One suspect is a staffer for Air Koryo, North Korea’s flag carrier, which was recently designated by the Treasury Department and has had to cut back its routes under U.S. and South Korean diplomatic pressure. The loss of each route complicates Pyongyang’s arms smuggling, slave trade, money laundering, and bulk cash smuggling. If Air Koryo loses its landing rights in Malaysia, it will be harder to transport North Korean traders and coal miners there, and to bring their earnings and wages back to Chinese banks. At least eight people (and by the time it’s all said and done, probably more) who might have earned or laundered tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars will be uprooted and sent home.
Another suspect was a highly trained chemist and trader. After having studied overseas, including in the United States, he was a fan of American and South Korean culture — in many ways, a poster boy for engagement — and yet, when the order was given, he was probably the one who mixed up the poison used for the assassination. (Put me down as guessing that if it wasn’t neostigmine bromide, it was probably some other kind of nerve agent. The symptoms match: eye pain, blurred vision, headache, seizures, and fainting.)
Worst of all, one of the suspects is a North Korean embassy official. Malaysian police are now asking to question North Korean embassy staff. Someone tried to break into the morgue where Kim Jong-nam’s body was stored (any guesses)? The North Koreans are in a public spat with the Malaysian government up to the Prime Minister level after questioning the fairness of the police investigation in a country that’s obsessed with law and order. Relations with China were also strained. By involving a diplomat in the plot, Pyongyang has further raised the odds that it will go back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Does it really take ten people, involving as many North Korean interests as possible, to kill one dude? Surely there must have been an easier way?
There may soon be a significant downgrade in relations between Pyongyang and one of its major trading partners. Kim Jong-un will suffer global embarrassment. Word of the assassination is spreading through North Korean markets like a new drama DVD. Fence-sitting South Korean voters and North Korean officials alike will ask, “If he’d kill his own brother, why not us?” As if on cue, Kim Jong-nam’s relatives are reportedly starting to defect. As with Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, his act of fratricide will shift the global narrative about who he is and how to deal with him (or not).
Why does Pyongyang do these things? Are these the acts of a man who is irrational, impulsive, or merely stupid? Certainly we can perceive the uneven distribution of competence in North Korea, with its very top leaders having the least of it. But another perfectly rational explanation is that in the end, they know they’re almost never held accountable for the things they do.