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Former US CIA Chief Sees Assassination of Kim Jong Nam as Strategic Move

Kim Jong Nam, 45, died February 13 after allegedly being poisoned by two women at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport

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FILE - Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 17, 2004, to discuss proposed reorganization of the intelligence community.

The motive for the assassination of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be an attempt to forestall any outside effort to install an alternative to the current leader, a former CIA acting director told VOA this week.

Kim Jong Nam, 45, died February 13 after allegedly being poisoned by two women at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The women smeared the VX nerve agent on Kim’s face, according to Malaysian police.

VX is a substance listed as a banned chemical weapon under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

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Kuala Lumpur police have arrested the women and one North Korean national, and are seeking seven other North Koreans, including a diplomat based in Kuala Lumpur, for questioning. While the police have not determined if Pyongyang was behind the assassination, Seoul accused the North Korean leader of ordering the killing of his half brother.

FILE - Kim Jong Nam, exiled half brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, gestures toward his face while talking to airport security and officials at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, in this image made Feb. 13, 2017, from Kuala Lumpur airport security cameras.
FILE – Kim Jong Nam, exiled half brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, gestures toward his face while talking to airport security and officials at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, in this image made Feb. 13, 2017, from Kuala Lumpur airport security cameras. VOA

In an interview with VOA, John McLaughlin, who served as acting director of Central Intelligence from July to September 2004 and as the deputy director of Central Intelligence from 2000 to 2004 under President George W. Bush, said North Korea is a likely perpetrator in Kim Jong Nam’s death, given the poison used to kill him.

“It’s very hard for someone not connected to a state entity to obtain the kind of poison that was apparently used,” the former CIA official said.

Potential threat to power

Once deemed heir apparent to his late father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled the country from 1994 to 2011, Kim Jong Nam lived in a de facto exile after falling out of favor with him. When asked what might have motivated the regime to order the killing, McLaughlin said: “The North Korean leadership wanted to make sure there is not an alternative readily available for Kim Jong Un.”

“They particularly would want to make sure that China would not have someone handy that they could install in the event Kim Jong Un was removed or fell from power,” said McLaughlin, who is now with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Although the incident has sparked widespread speculation about the stability of the North Korean regime, McLaughlin cautioned against drawing conclusions. However, he said a series of executions carried out by Kim Jong Un could indicate his power might be insecure.

“The pattern of purging is deep enough to suggest that he is still not totally secure in power,” he said.

Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong (second from right) is escorted by police officers from court in Sepang, Malaysia, March 1, 2017. Two young women accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea's leader, were charged with murder.
Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong (second from right) is escorted by police officers from court in Sepang, Malaysia, March 1, 2017. Two young women accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader, were charged with murder. VOA

Alarming event

The assassination drew the world’s attention because it took place at one of the busiest airports in Asia, prompting news media to speculate on why such a public venue was chosen.

McLaughlin, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, said the perpetrator might have thought the airport was the place where the victim was “most vulnerable.”

“It was probably seen as a place where what they were doing would be less easily noticed just from the general turmoil of the airport,” he said.

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According to McLaughlin, the incident in Malaysia is an “alarming event” because the banned chemical was used in a public place to kill someone.

“It means that this very unstable regime has a very powerful weapon and was reckless enough to use it in a crowd of people,” he said.

Possible repercussions

China is widely believed to have favored Kim Jong Nam for a leadership position in Pyongyang. The assassination puts Beijing in a difficult position, McLaughlin said.

“I think China faces a bit of dilemma here,” he said. “They don’t want major changes in the [Korean] peninsula, but they also recognize [Kim Jong Un] brings a degree of unpredictability that could shape things in a direction that they would have trouble managing.”

McLaughlin said the United States should relist North Korea as a state of sponsor of terrorism if the communist state is found responsible for the apparent assassination.

The U.S. designated the North as a state of sponsor of terrorism after the country bombed a South Korean airliner in 1987, killing 115 passengers and crew on board. In 2008, the U.S. removed the North from the list as part of a nuclear deal, in which Pyongyang agreed to disable its plutonium plant and allow some inspections.

Following Kim’s death in Kuala Lumpur, some U.S. lawmakers are calling on the Trump administration to repeal the decision.(VOA)

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North Korea Bans Imports of Chinese Pork on Fears of African Swine Fever Epidemic

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source

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chinese pork, african swine fever
The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in. Wikimedia Commons

North Korean authorities have banned imports of Chinese pork as an African swine fever (ASF) epidemic rages north of the Yalu River border between the two countries.

According to the latest update from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China has seen 138 ASF outbreaks since August 2018 and more than a million pigs have been culled since the initial outbreak in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.

North Korea’s ministry of agriculture confirmed the country’s first ASF outbreak in Chagang province on May 23 and South Korea’s ministry of unification has proposed discussions on how the two Koreas can work together to stop the further spread of the disease.

But RFA sources in North Korea say Chinese pork is still being sold in local markets. “A few days ago I heard from a customs official that North Korea has completely blocked all imports of pork and beef from China to prevent the spread of African swine fever,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on June 2.

chinese pork, african swine fever
Pigs stand in a barn at a pig farm in Jiangjiaqiao village in northern China’s Hebei province on May 8, 2019. Pork lovers worldwide are wincing at prices that have jumped by up to 40 percent as China’s struggle to stamp out African swine fever in its vast pig herds sends shockwaves through global meat markets. RFA

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. “I heard that in some areas, including Pyongyang and Sinuiju, they are trying to control pork sales, but no action has been taken yet in North Hamgyong,” said the source. The source said that the ban is quite rare, especially since diseases among livestock are common during this part of the year.

“There have been infectious swine diseases in the past, but they never banned the import of pork from China. At this time of year, we are usually hit with infectious swine diseases and many pigs are culled, but none of the residents bury the dead pigs,” the source said. The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in.

“The price of pork is between 14 and 15 Chinese Yuan (slightly more than $2) per kilogram, which is the same as before the authorities banned Chinese pork. Even though customs authorities are blocking pork imports from China, there is so much pork being smuggled in,” the source said. Another source, also from North Hamgyong, said the ban is strange, given that North Korean customs officials generally follow the lead of their Chinese counterparts.

“On the first of the month, pork that was to be brought in from China was quarantined at North Korean customs and sent back. It is unusual for our customs office to block this pork shipment because it didn’t have any problem going through Chinese customs,” said the second source.

“That [particular] pork shipment was to be brought in by a Chinese citizen of Korean descent who is a restaurant owner in Rason,” the second source said. “He thought there would be no problem going through customs because he regularly brings in pork from China. But the Wonjong customs office did not let it pass through on orders from the Central Committee,” the second source said.

chinese pork, african swine fever
“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. Wikimedia Commons

The second source said the restaurant owner was surprised his shipment was held back. “He has had no problem bringing in pork from China for several years now. Even when swine fever [started] spreading in China, he kept bringing it in. It’s the first time he has been stopped and he’s totally bewildered,” the second source said.

The second source said that the price of pork remains stable despite the ban, and no cases of ASF have been reported in Rason. Even so, residents have become fearful of the disease.

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“[They think] African swine fever is highly contagious and has a fatality rate of 100%, but Chinese pork is still being sold at the local markets and no restrictions have been announced,” said the second source. According to a USDA fact sheet, ASF is deadly only to domestic and feral pigs and does not affect humans. People can, however, spread the virus by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected livestock.

According to a source in South Pyongan province, North Korea has not culled pigs in any of its state-run farms where an ASF outbreak has occurred. The pigs instead were supplied to sausage factories at low cost. This has caused a flood of sausages to enter the market, cutting the price of sausage in half. (RFA)

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.