A test of quality friendships

Strained ties: A North Korean flag flying in the country’s embassy compound in KL. The Hermit Kingdom cut diplomatic ties with Malaysia on Saturday. — Bloomberg

THE Cold War swept in from 1947 and took decades to end. The Korean War began a few years later and has not officially ended.

From 1949, Kim Il-sung began building his political base in Pyong-yang. In the 1990s he passed the national leadership to his son Kim Jong-il, who later passed it to his son Kim Jong-un.

Through all this, North Korea became something of a political football between China, Russia and the United States.

The Cold War gave Pyongyang’s status a certain slant, while its nuclear weapons programme gave it another tilt. Little of it has been complimentary to North Korea.

Nonetheless, Malaysia as a non-aligned country refused to board the Western ideological bandwagon against Pyongyang.

It acknowledged North Korea as a fellow developing country, caught perhaps in some historical circumstances and having to meet some unique challenges of its own.

Malaysia sought to be even- handed towards North and South Korea, hosting embassies of both countries in Kuala Lumpur. Inter-Korean friction was seen as an all-Korean affair, which Koreans on both sides had to resolve by themselves.

In 1973, Malaysia and North Korea established formal diplomatic relations. In the 1980s, KL played host to quiet inter-Korean talks away from the media spotlight.

Malaysia-North Korea relations have been those of “close partners”. So long as Malaysian laws and international conventions were observed, Malaysia had no problems with Pyongyang.

Then in 2017 Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Jong-un, was assassinated at KLIA2 by suspected North Korean agents.

Malaysian police conducted a homicide investigation and suspicions fell on some diplomats in the North Korean Embassy. North Korea objected, demanding the swift return of the suspects or Malaysian diplomats in Pyongyang would not be allowed back home.

During the investigation, the body of Jong-nam lay in the KL General Hospital morgue. Pyong-yang issued denials and accused Malaysia of fabricating evidence of his death.

In the same year, North Korea upset the international community with nuclear weapons tests. Kuwait, Mexico and Spain expelled its diplomats, but Malaysia still did not terminate relations with Pyongyang.

Although Malaysia-North Korea ties cooled in 2017, they were set to warm again just one year later. Malaysia wanted to give North Korea another chance. However, there are limits to everything and Malaysian hospitality is not something to be abused or taken for granted.

Mun Choi-myong is a North Korean businessman who moved from Singapore to Malaysia to live in 2008. In May 2019 he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering and violating Malaysian law as well as UN and US sanctions.

He filed an appeal at the Federal Court in October 2020 which was dismissed, as his case failed to meet the requirements of the Extradition Act.

Throughout his detention, Mun was accorded his full rights as a detainee. He had a lawyer of his choice to represent him as well as family visits. His case had undergone the standard phases of due process. Malaysia only wanted its laws to be respected and required observance of international conventions, not get into a political power play.

Malaysian institutions seek to observe proper judicial procedure, without fear or favour, as administered by an independent judiciary. True friends of Malaysia can appreciate that.

On March 9, Mun lost his final appeal when the Federal Court ruled that he was liable to be extradited to the United States.

On March 19, North Korea severed diplomatic relations with Malaysia. It accused Malaysia of committing a “nefarious act and unpardonably heavy crime”.

Not unexpectedly, Pyongyang denied Mun had done anything wrong. Apparently, anyone who does not abide fully by this position has to be wrong and bad.

Malaysia played by the book with North Korea, but Pyongyang chose to go with its playbook instead.

Since Mun’s trial in the United States has not even begun, nobody can yet know if he is innocent or guilty. Being liable for extradition to stand trial means only that the merits of his case will be heard in court. Petulance in place of diplomacy does no favours for Mun or his country. But Malaysia is not deterred from doing what is right.

Malaysia’s friendship with its partner countries has never extended to violating its national laws or international conventions. That is not what responsibility in the international community is about.

To expect or demand that bilateral friendships should compromise proper procedure and the rule of law is itself is an unfriendly, unreasonable and irresponsible act.

Mun’s case is said to represent the first successful extradition of a North Korean national to the United States. However, there can be no joy or pride in being a first in such circumstances.

The mounting challenges of a troubled world require countries to have more friends, not fewer. But the quality of friendships has to be more important than the number of friends.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Perak Academy.

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