MALAYSIA-NORTH KOREA RELATIONS: HOSTILITY TO DIPLOMACY TO HOSTILITY?
-By Siti Hajar binti Abdul Halim
History of Malaysia-North Korea Relations
After gaining independence from Britain in 1957, under the administration of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia held the principles of pro-West and anti-communist. During that time being, the relations between Malaysia and North Korea were very tense as it was suspected that North Korea had provided resources to communists in Southeast Asia, included Malaysia. However, in 1970, during the administration of Tun Abdul Razak, he believed that non-aligned foreign policy and the neutralisation stand abled to ensure Malaysia’s security from the communist threat. At the same time, in order to improve their country’s image, the leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung started to establish and improve their diplomatic links with other non-communist states. After few negotiations, on 30 June 1973, Malaysia and North Korea commenced to enhance their diplomatic relations and at one time, Malaysia had probably been one of the closest allies of North Korea.
In 1981, Tun Dr. Mahathir adopted the Look East policy upon becoming the Prime Minister of Malaysia, with the purpose to learn the good values like work ethics and technological skills of the east. Besides, Tun Mahathir also believed that by aligning itself with the east countries, it abled to proffer greater trade and investment for Malaysia’s domestic economic development in becoming one of the developed nations. In this policy formulation, Malaysia insisted on including North Korea as one of its partners. Its efforts in enhancing economic cooperation with North Korea included sending a new ambassador to North Korea in September 1980 and signing several trade agreements with North Korea. Despite that, Malaysia-North Korea’s economic relations were being slackening and can be said did not benefit Malaysia in any way.
On the other hand, the normalisation relation of Malaysia with Pyongyang was being dissuaded aggressively by South Korea in which it insisted that Malaysia’s diplomatic actions could threaten the reunification of both Koreas. Even though the establishment of Malaysia’s diplomatic relations with North Korea can be said was a blow to South Korea, it, however, did not damage Malaysia-South Korea relations. In having diplomatic ties to both North Korea and South Korea, Malaysia’s firm decision can be said had gained high credibility in becoming a truly non-aligned nation with a neutralist foreign policy in the international community.
Rupture of Malaysia-North Korea Relations
The bilateral relations between Malaysia and North Korea remained warm since 1973 right until a drastic turn was taken after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of the current Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jung Un at KLIA on 13 February 2017. The assassination was carried out by two women from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively, through the usage of prohibited VX nerve agents. It is said that the assassination was masterminded by North Korean agents and the reason Kim Jong Nam was being targeted due to its existence as a threat towards Kim Jung Un’s rule.
The tensions between both countries escalated when there was disagreement in the launching of the investigation, in which Pyongyang simply wished the corpse of Kim Jong Nam to be returned home. Malaysia was also being flustered that Pyongyang might take the advantage of the relaxed and friendly policy towards them in choosing Malaysia as the best spot to assassinate Kim Jong Nam. The fallout of this bilateral relationship was even worse when the North Korean government restricted Malaysians in North Korea from leaving the country. The deadlock was then only broke after China involved as a third-party mediator that Beijing was served as the neutral transmit point for Kim Jong Nam’s corpse to be deposited by Malaysia, then picked up by North Korea. However, after the diplomatic rupture, the Malaysian government enacted a series of restrictions in several realms, including closing its embassy, suspended visa-free travel for North Koreans, restricted all Malaysian citizens from travelling to North Korea, and restrictions in several realms including on workers and businesses.
Severance of Malaysia-North Korea Relations
On 19 March 2021, North Korea announced to sever its diplomatic relations with Malaysia, and in response, Malaysia noted that it deeply regretted North Korea’s decision and denounced it as unfriendly and unconstructive, disrespecting the spirit of mutual respect and good neighbourly relations among members of the international community. The immediate trigger for this severance was the impending extradition to the United States of Mun Chol-Myong, a North Korean businessman. On 3 March 2021, the Federal Court of Malaysia denied Mun’s final legal appeal from being extradited to the United States on facing several charges, including money laundering and supplying prohibited luxury goods via Malaysia and Singapore to North Kore, breaching the United Nations sanctions. The case had been in process since 2019 when Mun was detained in May 2019 in Kuala Lumpur. Prior to his arrest, Mun had lived in Malaysia since 2008 and was only being arrested after the United States requested his extradition. The request was approved by Malaysia’s government but Mun challenged the bid. In North Korea’s Foreign Ministry’s scathing statement regarding the extradition, he claimed Mun was an innocent citizen and the illegal money laundering charges faced on Mun were an “absurd fabrication and sheer plot” orchestrated by the United States. North Korea then announced to end diplomatic ties with Malaysia due to the court’s decisions. Malaysia denounced the decision and was compelled to close its Embassy in Pyongyang, though its operations have already been suspended by Malaysia since 2017 after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam. Malaysia as well issued an order for all North Korean diplomatic staff in Kuala Lumpur to leave the country within 48 hours upon the severance.
The implication of the Severance
The complete severance of diplomatic relations between North Korea and Malaysia with their respective embassies forced to shut down has headlined the news globally. Nevertheless, it is highly doubtful that this severance in relations of Malaysia with North Korea would actually pose a direct threat to the national security of Malaysia, due to the geographical distance between both nations. On the other hand, Malaysia as one of the very few countries that were close to North Korea, Malaysia can be said had played its significant role in bringing North Korea and other ASEAN countries together and to be the gateway for North Korea to reach the rest of the world particularly to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Following this severance, Malaysia could reassess the merits and demerits in maintaining its ties with North Korea that is establishing any relations with North Korea would prove to be beneficial to Malaysia? It is also a question that would bilateral relations between Malaysia and North Korea worsen after this severance, or perhaps it may be a reminder for Malaysian policymakers to finally revise and act cautiously in the future while establishing any relations with a nation that favours aggression over negotiation. Moreover, it is also unclear that this severance of Malaysia-North Korea relations would significantly impact travel between both countries due to the ongoing international border restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.