Experts weigh in on North Korea’s strident reaction to Malaysia’s ongoing investigation into the assassination of a North Korean citizen. Sunday Star finds out what all this means for diplomatic ties between the two countries.
MOST people are stunned by just how rude North Korean ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol has been in attacking Malaysia’s handling of Kim Jong-nam’s murder at KLIA2 (see details of the assassination below).
He has done everything from accuse the country of being in cahoots with North Korea’s enemies to saying that the police investigation cannot be trusted.
But North Korean observers understand why the ambassador is doing this. They say it is “very necessary’’ or he and his family would have targets on their backs.
“The ambassador has to be very careful and say whatever the regime wants him to say even though it is diplomatically rude, otherwise he and his whole family could be purged, so easily purged!’’ says Dr Hoo Chiew Ping from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia who is an expert on North Korea.
After all, there is historical precedent.
A few years ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recalled its previous ambassador to Malaysia, Jang Yong-Chol, to Pyongyang and had him killed.
“The previous ambassador was the nephew of Jang Song Thaek, who was a very powerful man and the uncle and mentor of Jong-un.’’
Yet Jong-un, who assumed power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, felt so insecure that in December 2013 he ordered the execution of his mentor-uncle for allegedly being a traitor to the state.
“Not only that, he ordered the elimination of his uncle’s whole family line, including the nephew who was ambassador,’’ says Dr Hoo.
As it stands, the 33-year-old Jong-un has already executed more than 300 – a CNN report puts the number at 340 – North Korean officials since taking over, including a number of his late father’s most trusted senior aides.
The North Korean regime is also paranoid about high-level defections.
Last year, one of its highest ranking diplomats in Britain, Thae Yong Ho, defected with his family to South Korea, saying he was sick and tired of Jong-un’s regime.
In light of all that, Dr Hoo says being posted as the ambassador to Malaysia “means something” as that person would need to be someone in Jong-un’s trusted inner circle.
“Normally you post only close family members to embassies that can easily wire hard cash back to the regime.”
Given the financial sanctions against North Korea, she points out that the embassy in Malaysia is of particular significance because it is one of the few countries outside China with direct flights to Pyongyang.
“So when North Korea has business dealings with some of the countries in South-East Asia, they can put the cash in a bag and carry it directly from KL to Pyongyang.”
And it does not even have to be hard cash – it can be gold. And no, this is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
In March 2015, North Korea’s first secretary to Bangladesh was stopped at Dhaka airport by customs for trying to carry 170 gold bars worth more than US$1.4mil (RM6.2mil) into the country without declaring it.
“That shows that ambassadors and diplomats in North Korea are tasked with moving money and things like that,” explains Dr Hoo.
Given Malaysia’s strategic location, there are concerns the banks here could be used by North Korea for its illicit arms deals with Myanmar.
Over the years there have been news reports that North Korea has been supplying Myanmar with weapons and helping modernise their military and even helping in the building of underground bunkers.
Dr Hoo says North Korea, which has been carrying out ballistic missile tests, has ‘“some kind of missile deals” with Myanmar.
She points also to an incident some time back when Singapore helped the United States detect a North Korean ship bound for Myanmar and how, when it was intercepted, the captain refused to let the authorities on board so the ship had to return to Pyongyang.
“We suspect there was a missile shipment or something similar on board,’’ Dr Hoo says.
She also points out that when the North Korean airline, Air Koryo, started direct flights from Pyongyang to KL, the United States took note and put Malaysia on the US Treasury Department Watch List to see if it is a “partner in crime in facilitating North Korea’s money laundering activities’’.
So she says the international community is watching with interest to see how this assassination will play out and how Malaysia handles its diplomatic spat with North Korea.
So far, Wisma Putra has reacted by summoning Kang Chol and recalling Malaysia’s Ambassador to Pyongyang, Mohamad Nizan Mohamad.
North Korea has been denying the deceased is Jong-nam and its ambassador has slammed Malaysia for carrying out a post-mortem on their citizen without permission, repeatedly asking for the immediate release of the body.
Malaysia has refused.
Malaysian authorities say the priority is to let a family member claim the body and is also asking for a DNA sample to confirm the identity of the dead person, much to the fury of North Korea.
Dr Hoo says Kim Chol is a very common name in Korea.
“The most important thing for North Korea is that they don’t want the body to be identified as Jong-nam, whom they see as an enemy of the state and someone hostile towards Jong-un.
“They are denying Jong-un had anything to do with the murder. They just want to claim the body as one ‘Kim Chol’ from North Korea and that’s it.’’
But that is not going to happen, especially with the recent finding that the very toxic nerve agent VX is what killed Jong-nam. And that it was unleashed in a very public place, the airport.
VX is a banned chemical agent and not easy to obtain, which, again, seems to point a finger at North Korea.
Universiti Malaya academic Dr Geetha Govindasamy – who specialises in Korea-Asean and inter-Korean relations – says while investigations might not be able to pinpoint who actually ordered the killing of Jong-nam, there have been precedents when North Korean agents were sent overseas to carry out assassinations and kidnappings and conduct attacks.
She cites two such cases. One is the poisoning of South Korean diplomat Choi Duk-Keun in 1996 in Vladivostok, Russia, by North Korean assassins, and the other is the shooting in the head of defector Yi Han-yong (who is Jong-nam’s cousin) in 1997 in South Korea by suspected North Korean agents.
Dr Geetha says United States and South Korean intelligence services have always maintained that there is a standing order from North Korea to assassinate Jong-nam.
And she points out that, logically, no other country, be it South Korea, Japan or the United States – all of which are regarded as North Korea’s enemies – have any credible motive to murder Jong-nam.
And China has been protecting Jong-nam, so they wouldn’t have killed him either, she says, adding that Malaysia doesn’t interfere with North Korea’s internal politics so we too have no reason to take him out.
“In the past, whenever Jong-un’s regime was faced with threats, most of the time they resulted in purges. As a half brother, Jong-nam was a serious threat to Jong-un’s position as the leader of North Korea,’’ says Dr Geetha.
Agreeing, Dr Hoo has no doubt it was the North Korean leader who ordered the murder because “no one else wants Jong-nam dead’’.
“Jong-un’s mother is actually not the first wife of Kim Jong Il, and Jong-nam used to be the heir. So there are very good reasons why Jong-un wants to eliminate that line of inheritance to the regime.’’
Jong-un, who is the youngest of Jong Il’s sons, has only a daughter and no male heirs yet.
“Many say Jong-nam’s son, Han Sol, is next on North Korea’s hit list,’’ she says.
Dr Hoo says such purges are a pattern in North Korea’s politics and Jong-un is merely repeating what his father used to do before but at a much quicker pace and more drastically. He is dangerous because he is young, power crazy and insecure, she says.
A question people are asking is, why murder Jong-nam in Malaysia and not Macau or Singapore where he has homes and spends more time.
But Dr Hoo is not surprised that he was murdered here.
“Jong-nam travelled to this region very frequently. There are unconfirmed rumours he has a mistress here. People spot him at the airport here all the time. He is easily recognisable, easy to trace and never bothers to hide himself.
“And he has a very open travel pattern so it is no wonder the North Korean agents were able to plan something.”’
She says the only surprise was the nationality of the perpetrators because these acts would normally be carried out by North Korea’s own nationals.
Who will lose out?
Malaysia and North Korea have had established ties since 1973 and Dr Geetha says relations have been good for the past 40 odd years.
Although trade between the two countries is rather dismal, ranging from RM18mil to RM22mil a year only, the two countries are said to enjoy what some describe as a “special relationship”.
North Korea opened its embassy in Malaysia in 2003 and Malaysia reciprocated by opening an embassy in Pyongyang. And Malaysia is one of the few countries whose nationals can visit North Korea without a visa.
Recently, North Korea opened a South-East Asia and India tourism office in KL to attract tourists from these countries.
Currently, there are about 1,000 North Koreans living in Malaysia.
Dr Geetha points out that there are about 300 North Koreans working in a coal mine in Sarawak, which is something quite unusual.
For Dr Hoo, that deal between North Korea and the Sarawak State Government could not have happened without some kind of discreet blessings from the Federal Government.
Dr Geetha points out that “just days before the killing of Jong-nam’’, things were normal between Malaysia and North Korea and the countries had signed a cultural exchange memorandum of understanding focusing on co-operating on museums, archives, libraries, the arts, and cultural institutions.
She says there is also an established North Korean restaurant in KL and a number of North Korean students studying at HELP University (which, by the way, awarded an honorary doctorate in economics to Jong-un in 2013!) and this ‘‘close relations’’ between the two countries is the reason North Korea opened a direct air route to KL in 2011 – although the flights stopped after the United Nations Security Council imposed more sanctions on North Korea.
Dr Geetha feels one of the most important developments in North Korea-Malaysia bilateral relations is KL becoming one of the venues in which North Korean officials can engage “unofficially” with retired American officials for “track 2” diplomatic talks on their nuclear programme that is the point of much contention with the international community.
She says that Malaysia has been able to have a good relationship with both North and South Korea despite those two countries being at loggerheads with each other because Malaysia follows a foreign policy of non-alignment, so it does not take sides, and it does not interfere in the internal affairs of any nation.
According to Dr Hoo, Malaysia has increased its partnership with South Korea since 2008 and signed a number of deals on expanding cooperation, including in the area of defence.
“We have moved from an economic relations to more of a strategic cooperation phase and seem to be leaning more towards South Korea. And North Korea is taking note of that for sure.’’
Given what has happened between North Korea and Malaysia over Jong-nam’s murder, Dr Hoo says the ‘‘special relationship’’ Malaysia and North Korea have enjoyed might now change ‘‘if the North sees Malaysia as less of a partner’.’
Who stands to lose more if the relationship sours?
Definitely North Korea, says Dr Geetha, because it is an isolated country with very few ties to the outside world.
She says North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments have already caused sanctions to be imposed on the country by the UN and the EU as well as individual countries that have isolated North Korea even further.
“So it is in their interest to retain what friends they have.’’
Pyongyang is desperately trying to attract investments and export its products, and views Malaysia as a potential gateway for its products to the outside world, she says.
That is why she feels that, while the assassination of Jong-nam has without a doubt strained relations, it is a temporary setback only.
“Once the matter is solved, bilateral relations will be back to normal,’’ she says.
Dr Hoo too believes it is North Korea that stands to lose out.
For Malaysia, she says, the relationship with the North doesn’t matter all that much. And she says it might actually be better for Malaysia’s image and reputation not to support North Korea’s rogue regime.
“The ball is in North Korea’s court. It depends how much they treasure Malaysia’s geostrategic location for them to conduct their business and how much money is brought in through Malaysia.
“Only North Korea knows the answer to that. They have bank accounts here. If they want to sever ties with Malaysia, they need to look into those bank account issues before they do it.’’
Everyone would agree that being rude is not the way to heal a rupture in bilateral relations – but for Ambassador Kang Chol, it may be the only way to stay alive.