The Straits Times says

When 'fly in ointment' turns deadly

The very public assassination in Kuala Lumpur, of the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, marks a new level of recklessness from Pyongyang that should worry the world. The women charged with the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam used one of the deadliest of poisons, the nerve agent VX, to neutralise him as he was checking in for a budget flight to Macau, where he is mostly resident. The use of the toxin could have caused chaos in a busy international airport but, mercifully, KL was spared this. Still, the brazen act shook people around the world because of the seeming ease with which purported agents of a rogue state could strike outside its borders. Another stunning revelation was the Indonesian and Vietnamese nationalities of the alleged attackers covertly recruited for the attack. Some North Korean diplomats are said to be implicated in the deadly incident too.

For more than a year, North Korea has been reminding the world with frightening regularity that it is in the hands of an unpredictable ruler presiding over the relentless march of a dangerous nuclear weapons programme and delivery systems. Moving from the southern half of the Korean peninsula to Japan and the US territory of Guam, Kim Jong Un has been working towards an ability to hit California, the wealthiest state in the United States. Every South-east Asian nation is vulnerable in the bargain. What is more, Kim has been regularly eliminating enemies, real and imagined, at home - including close relatives. The half-brother was apparently eliminated because Kim fears that foreign powers may see him as a useful reserve in the event of a change of guard in Pyongyang.

The murder in KL serves as warning of the perils of regarding Kim as a mere fly in the ointment. Since it is clear that the assassins had full knowledge of their target's movements, choosing a public spot for the killing was a deliberate statement of menace. Secondly, those who ordered it clearly had no compunction putting dozens of other travellers, who could have come in contact with the deadly toxin, in grave danger. Pulling in nationals of third countries for the mission reveals a fearsome capacity to penetrate distant societies. A final, sobering caution is that North Korea may be abusing diplomatic privileges for its sinister campaigns.

Washington's decision to scrap back-channel talks with Pyongyang and Beijing's move to block coal imports from North Korea are indications that patience is wearing thin among the major powers. Despite the toughest-ever United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea, these have not had the crushing effect desired by the world. This calls for a closer examination of the devious means Kim is using to get around sanctions and to launch acts of terror in other countries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'When 'fly in ointment' turns deadly'. Print Edition | Subscribe