Once again, the international community finds itself asking a perennial question: What to do about North Korea? A chain of events has unfolded in the past month-and-a-half which has proved as astonishing as it has belligerent, and the international community is now compelled to take immediate and resolute measures — not only to uphold numerous international laws and norms, but also to ensure the security of North Korean exiles and refugees.
On February 11th, North Korea launched a Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile aimed directly at Japanese waters, followed by the launch of four more ballistic missiles on March 6th which landed just 300 kilometres west of Japan’s Oga Peninsula. Both were acts designed to perfect weapons capable of inflicting death on an enormous scale.
Yet it is the calculated and cold-blooded murder of one individual, Kim Jong Nam, which appears to have exposed a new and deadly intent of the North Korean regime. Slain on February 13th in broad daylight at a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport with a highly toxic liquid nerve agent that has been classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, the murder — if carried out by the Government of North Korea — would be one of the most brazen acts of state-sponsored terrorism and chemical warfare in recent memory.
Apparently orchestrated by a North Korean institution designed to network with foreign governments and non-government agencies, the External Liaisons Department, seven North Korean nationals have been suspected by Malaysian police of being involved in the murder. Four immediately flew to Pyongyang, while the remaining three suspects, one a North Korean diplomat, are still in hiding at the DPRK embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
The refusal of the DPRK Ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, to release the North Korean suspects into Malaysian custody, combined with his unsuccessful attempts to impede Malaysia’s police investigations and a suspected attempt to gain entry at the morgue where Kim’s body was held, rightly led the Government of Malaysia to declare Kang to be persona non grata.
As the international community reflects on this series of events, what is to be done about North Korea’s belligerence and the suspected wider problem of North Korean diplomats acting as agents of terror?
Continued missile launches pose existential threats to us all and North Korea’s military operations must be countered by direct and targeted disruption, in addition to the roll-out of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system and the imposition of yet further and far stronger sanctions. But the gruesome murder of Kim Jong Nam, which is just the latest in a long list of outrages suspected to have been coordinated by North Korean diplomatic personnel, requires a closer consideration of North Korean diplomats and agents across the world.
Operating as potential extensions of Pyongyang’s domestic arms of terror, corruption, and belligerence, North Korean diplomats have the capacity to move freely to conduct illicit activities, organise slave labourers, and execute North Korean exiles — even in Europe.
A recent United Nations Panel of Experts report found “diplomats, missions and trade representatives of the [DPRK] systematically play key roles in prohibited sales, procurement, finance and logistics.” Indeed, I have written in this paper before that such actions make it abundantly clear “that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade.”
The latest United Nations Security Council Resolution calls upon Member States to “reduce the number of staff at DPRK diplomatic missions and consular posts.” The United Kingdom and other European Union states have submitted their initial implementation reports concerning this resolution to the United Nations Security Council, and we should expect many North Korean diplomats to face de-recognition and a return to North Korea in the coming months.
Of course, a return to Pyongyang is not the only option for North Korean diplomats. The example of Thae Yong Ho, who I met while he worked at the DPRK Embassy in London and who has provided valuable intelligence on North Korea’s illicit activities since his defection, demonstrates the pull of freedom and prosperity over tyranny and fear. The emergence of the Cheollima Civil Defence, a discrete organisation which rescues and evacuates high-level North Koreans, and the recent quadrupling of the reward given to elite North Korean defectors who share intelligence to $860,000 by the South Korean Government, suggests that many more North Korean diplomats may refuse to abandon the freedoms and living standards they and their families enjoy in Europe and across the world.
But for now, the murder of Kim Jong Nam has brought the actions of North Korean diplomats sharply into focus. For far too long, Pyongyang’s diplomatic personnel have acted as potential vehicles for terrorism, murder, sanctions evasion, illicit sales, and the procurement of weapons of mass destruction. The latest United Nations resolution provides states with an opportunity to uphold international law and better protect exiled North Koreans and refugees who now find themselves to be targets of this most brutal regime. Starting today, this is a task that must not fail.
Fiona Bruce is Co-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
*An edited version of this article was originally published in the Chosun Ilbo in Korean on March 28th 2017.