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Why North Korea’s provocative acts have world leaders worried

Four ballistic missiles fired by North Korea during a military drill. Photo/Getty Images

What is Kim Jong-un ­playing at?

It’s a question flummoxing allies and adversaries alike here in Asia, with the irascible North Korean regime outdoing even itself in the provocation stakes these days.

From Tokyo and Seoul to Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, governments are trying to figure out what the 33-year-old North Korean dictator is trying to achieve, and how to convince him not to.

Just look at the past month. On February 12, North Korea launched a ballistic missile, the first since Donald Trump was elected US President. But it wasn’t just any ballistic missile, a jubilant Kim Jong-un said, it was a “new type strategic weapon system”.

A mere day later, Kim’s estranged half-brother was killed in an audacious attack at Kuala Lumpur ­International Airport. It turned out that Kim Jong-nam, who had been in exile for about 15 years, had his face smeared with VX, a nerve agent classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. He died a painful death within 20 minutes.

Of course, all fingers immediately pointed at the younger Kim, who had notably had their uncle knocked off three years earlier for amassing too much power. Kim Jong-nam was considered a threat, the thinking goes, so the North Korean leader got rid of him.

But with an internationally banned chemical weapon? In a crowded place with lots of security cameras? By two women who were more Keystone Kops than Godfather hitmen? Even for North Korea, this didn’t make sense.

China, which had been protecting Kim Jong-nam, perhaps as a potential replacement for the Pyongyang upstart, “invited” North Korea’s vice-foreign minister for five days of discussions. Then, the day after Beijing started its annual National People’s Congress, North Korea set off four missiles that demonstrated 12 of China’s 20 biggest cities were within reach.

Beijing is going to be especially annoyed with the missile launches, because they increase the ­rationale for the US putting an anti-missile ­battery in South Korea – something China has been ­feverishly protesting against.

Meanwhile, once-cordial relations with ­Malaysia have deteriorated sharply, with Kuala Lumpur ending visa-free entry for North Koreans and ­expelling their ambassador. Pyongyang then barred all Malaysians from leaving North Korea;  tit for tat, Malaysia stopped all North Koreans from exiting.

It’s one thing for Kim to provoke Japan and South Korea, his enemies in the region. But to so brazenly defy his few friends? It suggests one of two things. First, that the young Kim feels so ­confident in his leadership that he can act with impunity, despatching rivals and ­risk angering factions within North Korea, to achieve his goals. The assassination could be seen as sending a message to would-be ­dissidents inside North Korea and active defectors outside the country: wherever you are, we can get you, and in a really gruesome way.

Or second, it could be suggesting the exact opposite: that Kim is now so insecure and feeling so vulnerable that he has to resort to desperate measures, such as taking out a half-brother who seemed more interested in casinos than communism; that he is risking the few alliances he has to make a big statement.

As with so many things about North Korea, there are more questions than answers.

Now the focus is moving onto another question: what’s Donald Trump going to do about it?

Is the businessman who wrote The Art of the Deal going to sit down and negotiate with North Korea? Or will he seriously consider military action? ­Governments in Asia are on the edges of their seats.

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.