North Korea hit raises fears in the region

In the Middle East, there are ripples of concern over an assassination in Malaysia

This screen grab from CCTV footage obtained by Fuji TV shows Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un, speaking to airport authorities at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Kuala Lumpur. AFP / Fuji TV
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Unsurprisingly, the world has been shocked by the developing story of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, an estranged brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un. It appears the killing was carried out with VX nerve agent, a highly toxic substance that North Korea has produced in industrial quantities.

The shock is not merely about the astonishing brutality of the killing, using such a substance in a busy international airport. The North Korean regime is well versed in the arts of brutality against its own people. Of greater concern is that this killing appears to be an operation from another age: most will have thought that such graphic, public killings, with no regard for the safety of those around, had passed into history with the end of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the only comparable murder in recent years was the 2006 murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, assassinated using polonium-210 in a cafe in central London.

There is also a larger menace, which is North Korea’s historic role in the proliferation of missile technology and perhaps also nuclear technology – particularly to Iran. South Korea and United States intelligence agencies have tracked cooperation between Pyonyang and Tehran stretching back decades. They have noted that soon after ballistic missile technology appears to be perfected by North Korea, Iran also acquires such technology. South Korea estimates there are hundreds of North Koreans with extensive technical knowledge inside Iran and are convinced that the two countries have collaborated on nuclear technology.

All of this is, of course, deeply concerning. Iran has repeatedly said that it has no interest in developing a nuclear weapon and only wants to master the technology for energy purposes. But many of the related military technologies that North Korea is pursuing – longer range ballistic missiles, hardened underground shelters that could be used as testing facilities, miniaturised nuclear warheads capable of being used on missiles – would be of great interest to Iran, and of great concern to its neighbours.

What happens in North Korea, then, matters far beyond its borders and has a direct impact on the Middle East. Too often, the regime in Pyonyang is seen as unstable, even as a figure of fun. But the technology it is developing – and apparently exporting – is deadly serious, the difference between a stable and perpetually unstable Middle East.