The assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean dynastic ruler Kim Jong-Un, is a thing of spy novella. North Korea once again provides a shocking narrative, a plot twist and months of speculation. North Korea rides a continual wave of sensationalist projection of its power, and it suits them to do so. The more that North Korea captures the headlines, the greater the focus of world media is on the reach and strength of the dictatorship, rather than on its fragilities and its heart of darkness.
Behind the sensationalism is a grim, unyielding reality of a regime which seeks to brutalise and dominate its inhabitants through constant fear and violence. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea described it as “a State without parallel” where egregious violations of human rights are sui generis. Survivors from prison camps detail the squalor, the beatings, the rape and killings that fall on those deemed dangerous to the state. Citizens who remain loyal to the regime endure constant propaganda, surveillance and the threat of famine from a poorly run state bent on the sustenance of the few rather than the provision for the many. It is a testament of dark irony that a regime that has potentially killed 400,000 of its own citizens can still make headlines through one more murder.
It also suits the regime to project an image that it is impregnable. Yet North Korea is all too aware that it can be brought down. They have seen first-hand the collapse of a regime that seemed untouchable behind a mighty army and nuclear weapons (the collapse of the Soviet Union lives still in the minds of its former neighbours). China represents the most obvious point for pressure, and will likely be furious at the murder of an individual that was nominally living under its protection within China’s boarders (Kim Jong-Nam was murdered in Malaysia but had been living for years in the Chinese city of Macau with the blessing of Beijing). It would be appropriate to urge China to reconsider its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees back to a country that singles out North Koreans sympathetic to China’s reform programmes (as was both Kim Jong-nam and his murdered uncle, Chang Song Thaek).
The All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea is committed to highlighting the plight of the North Korean people under their current rulers. They have campaigned successfully for a BBC Korean service to be broadcast to the country and are also committed to building a worldwide group of experts to aid North Korea if the country ever becomes more accessible. Parliament and the international community must fix its vision not to just controlling the reach of the regime, but also on a call for justice to be done. As the European Parliament notes, North Korea’s crimes against humanity “have been taking place for far too long under the observing eyes of the international community”. We must look through the fog of espionage, assassination and intrigue that surrounds North Korea and instead see the crushing violations of human rights that desperately call out for justice.
Lord Alton is the Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group APPG on North Korea. Gerard Miles is a Political Advocate for Human Rights.