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(News Focus) N.K. likely to face more isolation if involvement in assassination confirmed

2017/02/15 13:00

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Feb. 15 (Yonhap) -- The assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half brother could deepen the reclusive country's isolation from the rest of the world if its regime is found to have been involved in his death, experts here said Wednesday.

Kim Jong-nam, the 46-year-old eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was reportedly killed on Monday at a Malaysian airport after he was attacked by presumed-to-be North Korean women, who are still at large, a government source said.

His body is currently undergoing an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death, but media reports have said that he was attacked by a poisonous chemical spray or a needle and died while being taken to a hospital.

Though it has yet to be confirmed that the North ordered the death, experts say that circumstances are pointing to its involvement supposedly aimed at strengthen its leader's grip on power by removing a potential rival.

If confirmed, they said, the action could further cut off Pyongyang from the international community by shedding light on the regime's brutality that even reaches the leader's siblings.

"Kim Jong-un may have removed a thorn in his side by assassinating Kim Jong-nam, but it seems that he would not be able to avoid more isolation down the road," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

"Such international isolation could lead to more complaints from ranking officials all the down to ordinary citizens, possibly serving to increase instability in the Kim Jong-un regime," he added.

In particular, given that Kim Jong-nam was said to have close ties with China and protected by Beijing, his death and the North Korean regime's possible involvement could strain Pyongyang's relations with its one and only powerful ally.

Such a development is not something the North wants at a time when it has already been facing mounting pressure from the international community following its repeated missile and nuclear provocations.

In 2016, North Korea conducted two underground nuke tests and fired off 24 ballistic missiles and long range rockets drawing strong condemnation.

This prompted the United Nations Security Council to adopt its toughest-ever resolutions mostly zeroing in on squeezing money flow to its regime as part of efforts to wean it off its weapons program.

Despite such pressure, its leader said in his New Year's address that the country has entered the final stage of its preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), ignoring the international call to stop such provocations.

Experts see the Kim's assassination, if confirmed, as a "terror" act that could bolster the move in the U.S. to relist the North as a state sponsor of terrorism. In January, a U.S. house lawmaker introduced a bill calling for North Korea to be placed back on the terrorism list.

Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, pointed out that Kim Jong-nam's death should be approached not as an act of terrorism but rather through a human rights perspective.

"If the North is found to have been behind his death, it would draw renewed attention to its human rights aspect rather than terrorism because Pyongyang ordered the killing of its own citizen in a third country," Chang said. "In that case, the North could be cornered without a way out on the human rights issue."

   This would add more pressure on the North which has been criticized for violating human rights of its citizens and ramping up its "reign of terror" and "cult of personality."

   Since taking office in late 2011, North Korea's leader Kim has ordered the execution of more than 100 military, party and government officials, according to Seoul's intelligence agency.

North Korea's serious human rights violations caught international attention on the back of a landmark report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) released in early 2014.

The report calls for the UNSC to refer Pyongyang's "crimes against humanity" to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The U.N. General Assembly adopted relevant resolutions for the third consecutive year in 2016.

kokobj@yna.co.kr

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