Assassination of Kim Jong-nam highlights Malaysia’s close ties to North Korea

By: Euan Black - Posted on: February 16, 2017 | Current Affairs

The murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean despot Kim Jong-un, in a Malaysian airport brings into focus Malaysia’s deep ties with North Korea, but also threatens to damage the long-standing relationship between the two countries

A TV shows breaking news about the alleged assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at a restaurant in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do, South Korea
A TV shows breaking news about the alleged assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at a restaurant in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do, South Korea, 15 February 2017. Photo: EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN

The fact that Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 is no small matter.

Relations between Malaysia and North Korea are strong, with Malaysian citizens the only ones in the world afforded visa-free access to the hermit state.

According to Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who runs the site North Korean Leadership Watch, the visa-free entry agreement has helped Malaysia become “a fairly significant financial hub for the DPRK’s legitimate and illicit business activities during the last two decades”.

And Malaysia appears to have further built on its ties with the renegade regime of late.

Last Thursday, the two countries renewed a memorandum of understanding focused on promoting cultural and arts-related ties between the two countries. In December 2016, 18 North Korean companies took part in the 13th Malaysia International Branding Showcase in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia External Trade Development Corp CEO Datuk Dzulkifli Mahmud told Star Online that, as a result, North Korea was “looking at using Malaysia as a gateway to Southeast Asian markets as it finds the country business-friendly with pro-business policies”.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the North Korean community in Kuala Lumpur could number as high as hundreds of people. Kim Jong-un even holds an honorary doctorate in economics from Kuala Lumpur’s private HELP University.

Madden believes that the assassination of Kim Jong-nam will strain diplomatic relations between the two countries. The motive for the attack remains unclear, but the fact that it was carried out on Malaysian territory creates its share of complications.

“After all, if this is the case, we would have DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] operatives using Malaysia to stage a murder,” he said.

“This expends Malaysia’s resources on a high profile criminal investigation, exerts pressure on Malay diplomats to share information or cooperate with South Korean and US government officials, and creates a major press headache. The DPRK will be compelled to answer to the Malay authorities about this.”

Most Southeast Asian states enjoy relatively good relations with Kim Jong-un’s unpredictable regime. Not only has the nuclear power made efforts to forge business connections with countries in the region since the 1990s, but Asean has also been reluctant to call out the regime on its human rights abuses and aggressive foreign policy.

Malaysian authorities have arrested two women in connection with the attack, one of whom was allegedly carrying Vietnamese travel documents with the name Doan Thi Huong.

If the assassination was carried out by the North Korean state, it would illustrate growing instability within the Kim Jong-un regime and could have knock-on effects for the wider international community, according to Hazel Smith, director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire.

“Resorting to brutality by assassinating one person is probably meant to strike fear in other people, but it doesn’t show a stable state,” she said.

“And why is that of interest to the rest of the world? In the face of a developing nuclear programme, if you haven’t got a strong state which is in control of all the various political factions and if you haven’t got a very regulated state in the first place, there is a danger that fissile material could be bought and sold within networks that nobody would want to see them go into.”

Update: Malaysian authorities have arrested a third person in connection with the assassination, who is believed to be the boyfriend of the second suspect. She has since been identified as an Indonesian citizen.