South Koreans try to make sense of murder

Last Monday's murder - first reported in South Korea on Tuesday and widely believed to have been a hit ordered by Pyongyang - has sparked concern about what the brash and unpredictable North Korean leader may do next.
Last Monday's murder - first reported in South Korea on Tuesday and widely believed to have been a hit ordered by Pyongyang - has sparked concern about what the brash and unpredictable North Korean leader may do next. PHOTO: AFP

Like many other South Koreans, Ms Han Song Yi was shocked at the news of Mr Kim Jong Nam's murder by poison involving two women in a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport.

"It was like an assassination scene from a Hollywood movie," said the freelance interpreter, 30.

South Koreans such as Ms Han are worried about the uncertainty that the murder - the victim is the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - brings to their country. For some, it is a grim reminder of the 1950-53 Korean War, which the North started by invading the South. For others, it raises the question of unification.

Said Ms Han: "It somehow signifies a changing atmosphere in North Korea. If it leads to more defections of high-level officials there, it may hasten the unification of the peninsula." She added that while she supports unification, she hopes it will not happen suddenly.

Retiree Kim Byong In, 74, has also been following the news, which has been blacked out in the North. "Kim Jong Un is killing everyone who poses a threat to him, which means his status is not so strong. No one knows what will happen in the future," he told The Sunday Times.

 
 
 
 

Last Monday's murder - first reported in South Korea on Tuesday and widely believed to have been a hit ordered by Pyongyang - has sparked concern about what the brash and unpredictable North Korean leader may do next.

Five years into his rule, he has already ordered some 140 purges of senior officials, including his pro-China uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was branded a traitor and executed in 2013. Mr Kim Jong Nam was known to be close to the uncle.

While Malaysian police have nabbed four suspects so far and are still pursuing two others in the case, observers here have been trying to make sense of the murder.

One prevalent theory is that Mr Kim Jong Un ordered the killing to get rid of a potential threat to his throne. China is said to have been protecting and grooming his brother as an alternative heir. Another theory is that Mr Kim Jong Un did so to prevent his brother, who had openly criticised his regime, from seeking asylum in South Korea.

A conspiracy theory that has emerged on social media fingers South Korea's intelligence agency for the murder in order to divert attention from President Park Geun Hye's ongoing impeachment trial.

At around noon yesterday, "Kim Jong Nam autopsy results" was the eighth most-searched topic on South Korean search engine Naver.

Local media have gone to town with the murder case, with some vilifying the North Korean leader with headlines like "Ruthless Kim".

The JoongAng Ilbo said the incident underscored the need to deploy an American anti-missile system to guard against threats from the North. Chosun Ilbo, another mainstream daily, wrote: "South Korea needs to remind itself of just how brutal its neighbour is and take adequate steps to protect itself."

 

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The South Korean government's response has been muted. The National Intelligence Service said Mr Kim Jong Un had issued a "standing order" to kill his estranged sibling.

Acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn said he had asked officials to come up with measures to deal with additional provocations from the North.

But political commentator David Lee said South Korea's military has a firm alliance with the US to deal with the North, and that South Korean people are "very resilient against political and economic turmoil".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'South Koreans try to make sense of murder'. Print Edition | Subscribe