Kim’s Assassination Casts Shadow on Malaysia-North Korea Ties
The recent assassination of, half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in a Malaysia airport has not only put a spotlight on the close ties between the two countries but is also likely to destabilize the relationship amid a deepening row over the ongoing police probe.
When the news broke that Jong-Nam was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 13 February by two female suspects, the North Koreans have largely remained silent and dispatched their ambassador Kang-Chol to monitor the investigation’s progress. By the end of the week, however, the furious North Korean diplomat had an outburst in front of the media by issuing a statement accusing Malaysia of “colluding with hostile forces towards us (North Korea) who are desperate to harm us of malice,” in a likely reference to its rival, Seoul.
The Malaysian government has rejected such accusations as “baseless” and recalled its ambassador to Pyongyang while Chol has also been summoned by the Foreign Ministry to explain his statement. As the current diplomatic spat continues to escalate, the enduring relationship between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur is likely to be tested and the outlook does not sound promising.
The history of diplomatic relationship between the two countries can be traced back into the early 1970s when both sides agreed to establish official ties. However, it was not until the beginning of year 2000 that ties started to warm up leading to the opening of embassies in their respective capital cities.
Since then, the relationship between the two countries continued to thrive with Malaysia being one of Pyongyang’s few friends in the global arena. Direct flights operated by North Korea’s national Air Koryo were established in 2011 but were terminated in 2014 due to United Nations’ sanctions. Not only that, Malaysia is also the only country in the world that can enter the reclusive state without a visa for up to 30 days. Economic relations were also growing with the North importing refined oil, natural rubber and palm oil from Malaysia while coal and iron ore from Pyongyang were exported to the latter.
On a more personal level, Kim Jong-un was also awarded with an honorary doctorate in Economics by a university in Malaysia in an attempt to reach out to the people of North Korea. Apart from such exchanges, at least 1,000 North Koreans also study and work in Malaysia though they have remained largely low-profile. The opening of the state-backed Pyongyang Koryo restaurant that serves North Korean delicacies also became the most visible sign of how close these two countries were before the current row began.
Malaysia’s tough stance on conducting a thorough investigation according to the laws of the country did not go over well with North Korea that insisted that Jong-Nam’s body be returned to Pyongyang as soon as possible. The Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, said North Korea must abide by the country’s law as the case has been categorized as sudden death, necessitating the need for a full autopsy as well as cross-reference of DNA with Jong-Nam’s family members.
Aside from respecting the rule of law, Kuala Lumpur also views the handling of the incident as a matter of restoring international confidence following the questionable disappearance of MH370 in 2014. The administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak is keen on demonstrating that it is able to handle such a high-profile incident that came amid a possible election year in the country. For the domestic audience, giving in to North Korea’s demand also makes Najib’s administration, which has already been hit by several scandals including the 1MDB crisis, appear weak.
For the North Koreans, the prolonged investigation of the incident is also likely to reinforce the rogue state image of the country, further isolating it from the international community that grows wary of its nuclear and missile programs. In a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Kang-Chol said his country will no longer trust the investigation by the Malaysian police and proposed a joint-investigation instead. He even accused the Malaysian police of using hard-handed tactics against one of the suspects, a North Korean citizen.
As the tit-for-tat escalates, the trust between both sides appears to have been eroding rapidly. The once healthy relationship between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur is now on the verge of collapse, leaving the hermit kingdom with fewer friends across the globe.
While the Malaysian government continues to treat this as a criminal case, it clearly understands that several regional powers such as China, South Korea, as well as, the United States are monitoring the situation. As such, it is also threading a very delicate situation to avoid being caught in a regional power play.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said it is closely following the situation and this came amidst the crack in ties between Pyongyang and Beijing. China’s patience with Kim Jong-un has reportedly been waning amid his belligerent behavior ever since assuming leadership in 2011. Jong-Nam has previously been placed under Chinese protection while in Macau as the deceased’s thinking mirrored what Beijing envisions for its impoverished neighbor. Question also arose if a security lapse in Malaysia allowed for the assassination of Jong-Nam by North Korean agents.
As part of punitive measures against North Korea’s missile test, China has also recently turned back a coal shipment from the country and placed a ban until the end of 2017. The timing of the rejection came only a few days after Jong-Nam’s alleged assassination. Such measure, however, could be short-lived as China’s overarching interest lies with the fact that North Korea is a buffer state against US troops stationed in South Korea. On that note, China seems to have no choice but to put up with Pyongyang’s erratic behavior for years to come. The South Korean government on the other hand was more blunt in its response by pointing out that North Korea ordered the assassination and calling it a “terrorist act.”
The North Korean government is likely to continue its rhetoric against the Malaysian government and could recall its ambassador in Kuala Lumpur, following a similar move by Malaysia. In the long-run, North Korea could also readjust its relationship with Malaysia although further isolationism especially in terms of economic ties could only be more adversarial to Pyongyang itself instead of the latter. Last but not least, Malaysia could also lose the visa-free status for its citizens to enter the country though this is unlikely to have any adverse effect for its travelers rarely rank North Korea as a destination for a leisure trip.