Analysis: Engaging with the Hermit Kingdom

Diplomatic tiff: The Embassy of Malaysia in Pyongyang has not been staffed since April 2017.

Experts weigh in on whether it’s the right move, at the right time, for Putrajaya to rebuild our relationship with North Korea after a high-profile assassination triggered a tense falling out in 2017.

MALAYSIA is set to reopen its embassy in North Korea and reestablish its relationship with the “Hermit Kingdom” after a falling out over the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother in Kuala Lumpur.

Although the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam and the subsequent murder investigation led to severe diplomatic strain between the two countries, reopening the embassy in Pyongyang is the right move, say two Malaysian academics specialising in North Korean issues.

Universiti Malaya senior lecturer Dr Geetha Govindasamy, whose expertise is in Korea-Asean and inter-Korean relations, believes that it is pointless to isolate North Korea.

“If the global community wants North Korea to morph into a ‘normal’ state, then engagement is the appropriate strategy. Malaysia has constantly advocated engaging Pyongyang even when relations were tense, especially after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, ” she tells Sunday Star.

Malaysia previously had comparatively close diplomatic and trade relationships with North Korea which turned acrimonious after the assassination of Jong-nam using the VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2) in 2017.

While acknowledging the latest developments – Pyongyang has said it will no longer abide by commitments made at denuclearisation talks held in Seoul and Singapore – Geetha maintains that engagement with North Korea is a practical move, at least for diplomatic reasons.

In mid-2018, right before the United States-North Korea summit in Singapore, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that Malaysia will reopen its embassy in Pyongyang and that Malaysia should encourage North Korea to participate in international negotiations to “moderate the rigid attitude it had before”.

Geetha highlights that Malaysia adheres to Asean’s stance, which rejects an isolationist policy towards Pyongyang, and is supportive of the denuclearisation of North Korea.

Geetha also advocates the broadening of “middle power” activism.

“Malaysia and Asean classify themselves as middle powers. The objective of middle powers is to facilitate engagement between parties. In the North Korean case, Asean, as an organisation, and its members, in terms of bilateral ties, have always chosen to engage rather than isolate Pyongyang, ” she explains, providing the examples of Singapore and Vietnam which played hosts to US-North Korea talks in 2018 and 2019.

Geetha believes that, through Asean, Malaysia has the capacity to play a bigger role in involving North Korea in East Asia.

“Asean is a perfect partner to undertake this initiative, as North Korea has relatively good relations with almost all South-East Asian countries, ” says Geetha

Pyongyang can rely on Asean to mediate talks between China, Japan, South Korea and the United States through the East Asian Summit or the Asean Regional Forum, she suggests.

“Furthermore, China, Japan, South Korea and the United States are already in multiple Asean forums. Malaysia, as a founding member of Asean, can take the lead to play host to such an enterprise, ” she says.

Asean's role

Dr Hoo Chiew Ping, an expert on North Korea at Universiti Kebang-saan Malaysia, is also supportive of reopening the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang.

The senior lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations says that Malaysia cannot lose out by being the only South-East Asian country without ties to North Korea.

“It is pertinent for us to resume diplomatic relations with North Korea, to ensure that Malaysia still has a stake, together with Asean, in facilitating dialogue between the two Koreas, ” she tells Sunday Star.

Hoo explains that keeping North Korea engaged with international society is part of the effort to socialise the country so they are not isolated or so they don’t feel cornered by the regional community and embark on even more dangerous behaviour, such as missile provocations or state-sponsored terrorism.

Nevertheless, Hoo recognises that Malaysia will have to apply extra precautions in future engagements with North Korea.

“A bilateral cultural exchange agreement had been signed by Malaysia before the (2017) incident, so there is a need for the relevant ministries to review whether that agreement has to be renegotiated, ” she says.

Hoo also notes that there should be increased monitoring of North Korean activities in Malaysia, as the trust that was built over the past decades has been damaged.

“This also presents an opportunity to reconstruct bilateral ties with more accountability on both sides, and for Malaysia to ensure illicit activities that could harm our national interest and security will not reoccur, such as using Malaysia as a venue to launch activities dark cyber operations and smuggling of goods, ” she adds.

Making the Korean Peninsula issue a priority for Asean is long overdue, says Hoo, who believes that Malaysia should consider raising North Korean issues at the Asean level.

In recent history, South-East Asia has been associated, both intentionally and otherwise, with North Korean-related issues. These include the two historical summits in Singapore (in 2018) and Vietnam (2019), the deadly Rangoon (present day Yangon) bombing in 1983, and the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam at KLIA2.

“It’s time to raise the profile, so Asean member states can coordinate with each other, preparing for a worst case scenario but always ready to provide a platform for the major stakeholders in the Korean Peninsula to continue dialogues and negotiations, ” says Hoo.

Should Malaysia proceed with reopening its embassy, Wisma Putra should engage and communicate with their counterparts closely and establish a special channel of communications to ensure previous scenarios will not reoccur, says Hoo.

Safety measures, such as replacing electronic devices inside the embassy, are necessary to reduce the possibility of espionage devices having been installed, she adds.

“The embassy compound is closely watched by other diplomatic missions in Pyongyang, updates are necessary to know what has happened after Malaysian diplomatic officers left, ” she says.

On the strategic outlook, Hoo suggests that Malaysia coordinate with the other four Asean member states’ embassies in Pyongyang – Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam – as there is an Asean Committee in Pyongyang that implements activities in North Korea.

She believes that together, Asean can present a strong united stance diplomatically in a variety of ways: by promoting positive engagement with the North Korean people, in education and research exchanges, in agricultural cooperation, reforestation, climate change issues, improving ties between the two Koreas, and in implementing social development projects in local communities.

Is it too soon?

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Dr Oh Ei Sun believes that it is premature for Malaysia to reopen its embassy in Pyongyang, as there has not been “a real resolution” for the Jong-nam assassination.

This is evidenced by how North Korea is still in denial over its involvement in the matter, says Oh, who specialises in Malaysian and regional foreign policy.

“There is also no real benefit for Malaysia to warm up its ties with North Korea, as the United States-North Korea rapprochement and the Korean Peninsula denuclearisation issues are going nowhere, hence US-led sanctions are still very much in place for the foreseeable future, ” he explains.

“Malaysia must realise that North Korea has everything to gain by seeking to normalise relations with Malaysia, as it is internationally sanctioned and isolated as an outcast rogue country. Conversely, Malaysia has very little to gain by warming up to North Korea, ” he says.

“So Malaysia should not go out of its way to rebuild diplomatic relations with North Korea.”

Should Malaysia proceed with reopening its embassy, security and emergency evacuation measures for Malaysian nationals, diplomats, and families must be thought out very thoroughly, says Oh.

“After all, before our embassy there was closed, our diplomats and families were essentially taken hostage by North Korean authorities, in blatant violation of international laws and norms, ” he points out.

Escalating tit-for-tat

The unraveling of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and North Korea began with Jong-nam’s assassination and, subsequently, North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol accusing Malaysia of “colluding with ‘hostile forces’” in the murder investigation.

After failing to apologise for his accusations, Kang Chol was declared persona non-grata by Malaysia. Correspondingly, North Korea did the same to Malaysia’s ambassador then, Mohamad Nizan Mohamad.

In another tit-for-tat move, North Korea barred Malaysians, mostly diplomatic staff and their families, from leaving the country after Malaysian authorities sought to question three men hiding in the North Korean embassy in KL over the assassination. At the time, there were 11 Malaysians in North Korea.

An emergency National Security Council meeting was called and former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak accused North Korea of effectively holding Malaysian citizens hostage.

The Malaysian police then instituted a similar ban, barring North Korean embassy staff from leaving Malaysia.

After a series of negotiations, by the end of March 2017, both stranded Malaysians and North Koreans were allowed to return to their respective countries and the body of Jong-nam was sent to North Korea after the autopsy was completed in Malaysia.

Despite high tensions, Najib maintained that Malaysia would not cut diplomatic ties with North Korea. However, wire news agency Reuters reports that the Malaysian embassy in Pyongpang has not been staffed since April 2017 and, as of February last year, Malaysia had further downgraded its ties and declined invitations to North Korean events. Trade between the two nations was also affected.

The two women accused of carrying out the attack, Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong and Indonesian Siti Aisyah, were initially charged with murder, which carries the mandatory death penalty upon conviction in Malaysia.

The two women were accused of splashing the VX nerve agent – a banned chemical listed as a weapon of mass destruction – on Jong-nam’s face at the KLIA2 departure hall on Feb 13,2017. The duo claimed they thought they were taking part in a prank for a television show.

Siti Aisyah was eventually freed in March 2019 after the prosecution withdrew the charge following the Indonesian government’s continuous high-level lobbying for her release. Doan also escaped the gallows after she pleaded guilty to an alternative charge of voluntarily causing hurt with dangerous weapons or means and was released from prison in May 2019.

In a December interview with national news agency Bernama, Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said all security and safety measures will continue to be prioritised in the reopening of the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang.

Saifuddin said that the status of visa-free entry for North Korean citizens to Malaysia will be discussed once diplomatic relations with Pyongyang normalise. Before the assassination, citizens of both countries could travel between Malaysia and North Korea


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