In settling a diplomatic crisis following the assassination in Malaysia of the North Korean leader’s half-brother, Kuala Lumpur had little choice but to agree to send the victim’s body and three suspects to North Korea in exchange for nine Malaysians who had been blocked from leaving Pyongyang, analysts told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Malaysia’s government was pushed into a corner where it had to put the welfare of its nine citizens, who were trapped in North Korea for more than three weeks due to an exit ban, above other considerations, some international relations analysts suggested in assessing the Malaysian decision.
A six-week-long crisis came to an end last week when Malaysia agreed to hand over the body of Kim Jong Nam and three North Koreans initially identified by Malaysian police as among at least seven North Korean men wanted in connection with Kim’s assassination by poisoning at a Kuala Lumpur area airport on Feb. 13.
Malaysia made the trade although its police chief had vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice and the prime minister had, during the height of the crisis, accused North Korean government agents of being behind the assassination.
“Just what other outcomes do people expect? At stake was the liberty and possibly the lives of nine Malaysians, including children,” Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies Program at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, told BenarNews.
“Nobody could’ve gauged how far the North Koreans were willing to go, how much pain they’d be willing to endure, to get what they wanted. What would you do in such a situation? Would you take chances? The results might be sub-optimal, but welcome to the real world,” he said.
Ahn Sang Wuk, an associate professor at University Malaya’s International and Strategic Studies Department, voiced a similar opinion.
“The Malaysian government’s top priority had been to bring its citizens home,” said Ahn, who is South Korean, likening the recent crisis to a hostage situation.
“If North Korea is not holding Malaysians hostages, then Malaysia will not consider suspending its diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.”
Kim was killed with an internationally banned nerve agent, according to Malaysian police, and the question of who could claim custody of his body was a flashpoint in the dispute that shook relations dating back to 1973. During the dispute the two countries expelled their respective ambassadors, froze mutual free-entry visa programs and imposed exit bans on each other’s citizens.
In a joint statement last week, the two countries announced that the crisis was over, saying they had agreed to lift reciprocal exit bans and to discuss re-instating their mutual visa-free programs.
Since then, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said bilateral relations remained intact and, over the weekend, his deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, announced Malaysia would keep its embassy in Pyongyang open. He said he hoped Pyongyang would reciprocate. However, on Tuesday it remained unclear whether Malaysia would send its ambassador to North Korea back to Pyongyang.
Shahriman said the episode around the murder of the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on Malaysian soil was a “wake-up call” to Malaysia on the risks of maintaining ties with North Korea, a country under global sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.
The episode also did much damage to bilateral relations, he suggested.
“Don’t confuse diplomatic niceties for actual policy. The fact of the matter is that Malaysia-North Korea relations have crossed a point of no return,” Shahriman said, referring to the joint statement that announced an end to the crisis.
But Abdul Muein Abadi, a political scientist who lectures at the National University of Malaysia, was optimistic about the future of Malaysian-North Korean ties, saying he expected them to “recover in stages.”
“It is clear that the solution is for the long term. The travel ban on Malaysians has also been lifted. It is an early and positive sign that bilateral ties will recover,” he told BenarNews.
He said mutual trust could be expected in the future because the Malaysians who were stranded in North Korea for three weeks said they were treated well by the authorities in Pyongyang.
The crisis may be over but, after the government agreed to send Kim Jong Nam’s body to North Korea along with the three men, Malaysian authorities no longer have access to any of the North Korean suspects.
Four of the suspects are believed to have fled Malaysia on the day of the assassination and another North Korean suspect, a trained chemist, was released and deported earlier because of insufficient evidence, police said.
Now, police are left to deal with only two suspects, an Indonesian woman and a Vietnamese woman who have been charged as co-assassins in the Kim murder.
When BenarNews contacted them separately, the lawyers for both women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, declined to comment on how Malaysia’s decision to allow North Korea to take custody of Kim’s body and release the three North Korean suspects would affect their clients’ cases.
Gooi Soon Seng, the lawyer for the Indonesian woman, said it was “too early to see the implications.”
“Naran Singh (co-counsel) and I are doing the best we can to [represent] our client, and we believe she has a good defense,” Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, an attorney representing the Vietnamese woman, told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.