Row Over Kim Death Tests Limits of Malaysia-North Korea Ties

2017-02-22
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Ri Tong Il, a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry, addresses a press conference during an ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 6, 2015.
Ri Tong Il, a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry, addresses a press conference during an ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 6, 2015.
AFP

Diplomatic fallout from the alleged assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother is testing long-standing bilateral relations and raising questions about whether Kuala Lumpur will cut off ties with Pyongyang.

Some analysts speculate that Malaysia could expel North Korean diplomats in Kuala Lumpur if Pyongyang refuses to hand over a diplomat sought by police for questioning over the killing of Kim Jong Nam.

“I don’t expect the relationship to be severed, but a form of downgrade looks inevitable at this stage. I suspect the Malaysian authorities are looking into implementing international sanctions with greater vigor,” Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia (ISIS), told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Malaysia already has recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang after government sources in the United States and South Korea alleged North Korean agents were behind the assassination of Kim Jong Nam at a Kuala Lumpur area airport on Feb. 13.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Malaysian Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar said he could not confirm whether Pyongyang had carried out the assassination, but he said, “what is clear is that those involved are North Koreans.”

He announced that authorities had asked the embassy on Wednesday to hand over Second Secretary Hyon Kwang Song and North Korean state-airline employee Kim Uk Il – both of whom are believed to be in Malaysia and wanted in connection with the case.

“Malaysia must take into account all the aspects before taking further action. The worst-case scenario is we can cut diplomatic ties with North Korea. However, it is too early to predict this,” Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a professor of international relations at Universiti Utara Malaysia, told BenarNews last week before a bilateral row broke out.

Bilateral trade

The two Asian countries established diplomatic relations in 1973 and Malaysia remains one of North Korea’s relatively few trading partners despite the communist state’s international isolation through sanctions over its illegal nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile tests.

The volume of bilateral trade in 2015 was relatively small – totaling nearly 23 million ringgit (U.S. $5 million), according to The Star. Malaysia exports rubber, palm oil and petroleum to North Korea, which sends iron, steel and chemical products to the Southeast Asian nation, the newspaper reported.

North Koreans and Malaysians also are able to visit their respective countries without a visa.

Those ties have taken a hit since a war of words erupted in the past five days between the North Korean ambassador to Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia’s government over how local authorities have handled an investigation into the death of Kim Jong Nam.

Although North Korea has not yet matched Malaysia by recalling its ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government might be compelled to pressure Pyongyang into handing over the diplomat, according to Shahriman.

It could do this, he said, by invoking a provision of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321 that allows member-states “to reduce the number if staff at [North Korean] diplomatic missions and consular posts” – in other words, expel some of Pyongyang’s embassy personnel.

“If North Korea doesn’t lift the diplomatic immunity of one of their diplomats who’s being sought by Malaysian police in connection with Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, Malaysia would probably find it compelling to invoke such kinds of provisions,” Shahriman said.

Angry words

Bilateral ties have been “somewhat hurt” within the past week, particularly following comments made by Pyongyang envoy Kang Chol, said Hoo Chiew Ping, a North Korea policy analyst at the National University of Malaysia.

Amid a refusal by Malaysian officials to hand over Kim Jong Nam’s remains to North Korea without a post-mortem and their insistence that his next-of-kin give the authorities DNA samples as part of their investigation, the ambassador publicly accused Malaysian authorities of conducting an unprofessional investigation and colluding with Seoul over Kim Jong Nam’s killing.

In his public comments, however, the ambassador never referred to the dead man as Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older sibling of North Korea’s leader. The envoy identified the dead man as Kim Chol, a holder of a North Korean diplomatic passport.

“But his reaction is understandable due to the need to express the North Korean regime’s position on the issue: their need to secure a dead North Korean national, despite refusing to acknowledge [to whom] the body belongs or [whether the person is] related to the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un,” Hoo told BenarNews.

“If the North Korean ambassador does not say anything that is in line with the regime’s expectations or even slightly recognizing Kim Chol as Kim Jong Nam, his life could be in danger,” she told BenarNews.

Azmi Hassan, a Malaysian professor of geo-politics, said Kuala Lumpur so far had demonstrated that it was giving higher priority to solving the case, even if this meant pushing the limits of its 44-year-old bilateral ties with Pyongyang.

“But when the inspector general of police named a suspect who is a diplomat of the embassy, it shows Malaysia’s determination to find out the culprit without any regard to diplomatic relations,” Azmi told BenarNews.

“When the sovereignty of a country is challenged, diplomatic interests becomes less important.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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