North Korea. A country notorious for its dictatorship, nuclear crises, famine, natural disasters and human right violations. Our diplomatic relation with them has recently been brought to the spotlight when Kim Jong-Nam, the elder brother of Kim Jong-Un, was murdered on our nation’s sovereign ground, in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). His murder puts forth a question on our diplomatic relations with the country – since when have we affiliated ourselves with North Korea? To what extent should we continue this relationship?
There are conflicting views as to how Jong-Nam died. Ri Tong-Il, the former North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that he died from heart attack due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. However, US and South Korea accused that he was murdered by North Korean agents, and were quick to point out that a poison-pen was used.
Malaysia confirmed a week later that he was poisoned with a chemical known as VX nerve agent. In fact, it is classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction and is 100 times deadlier than the infamous sarin gas. Since it was deployed on Malaysian soil, some even go as far as claiming it could lead to a ‘justifiable act of war’.
Malaysian Diplomatic History with North Korea
North Korea, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a Communist country, regardless of its self-imposed “Democratic” and “Republic” labels. Since Malaysia has taken anti-communist measures in the past, as evidently, the Internal Security Act (ISA) was formed partly to counter the resurgence of communism. Communism dictatorship rule and several other governing principles are categorically contradicting our nation’s democratic values. Therefore, it begs an important question – why do we have diplomatic ties with a communist nation at all?
The truth is, Malaysia has already established diplomatic ties with them since 1973. Rather surprisingly, Malaysia was the first country whose citizens could travel there without a visa for purposes of tourism and businesses with some sources even claiming that we are the only country with such privilege.
Equally interesting, in an effort to integrate North Koreans into globalization, our very own HELP University awarded an honorary doctorate in Economics to Kim Jong-Un back in 2013. There are even some North Koreans studying at the same university.
All of these point to a pre-existing diplomatic tie with North Korea, which we have recently severed in light of recent events.
Malaysia Cut Ties?
Not long after the horrendous murder in our airport, Malaysia had recalled her ambassador back for “consultations”, and also expelled North Korean’s ambassador deeming him a persona non grata with a 48 hour notice to leave. As of today, he has left the country.
This was amid the claims that Pyongyang had refused an apology for interfering and attacking the investigations, while the North Korean ambassador was also called “diplomatically rude” by our Prime Minister. Some other ministers have also called out North Korea to be a highly unpredictable rogue state.
North Korea had retaliated by prohibiting Malaysians in their country from leaving the country. They claim to be willing to release them when the incident is solved, and the air of uncertainty is keeping Malaysians curious and concerned as negotiations continue.
Recent events show that Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak, our Prime Minister, has condemned the ban as a blatant disregard of international law, and committed to take all measures necessary to protect Malaysian citizens in North Korea. Malaysia has also banned North Koreans from leaving our country.
Malaysia-North Korea Relations Going Forward
The relationship was first formed due to Malaysia’s practice of a neutral non-interventionist policy as our foreign policy. Neutrality has been central in Malaysian foreign policy since the 70s, which made amiable relations with both democratic states such as the United States, and also authoritarian polities such as Iran and China, possible even when conflicts between these states were occurring. Neutrality mainly helped our country through mutual economic benefit. However, embracing neutrality as a foreign policy is not an absolute policy and has its own limits. For instance, Malaysia has always positioned itself condemning Israel for atrocities committed against Palestinians and their illegal settlements in the West Bank.
North Korea has benefited from the diplomatic relationship we have with them especially as we mediate informal peace talks for them and the US in our country. They have also benefitted from our education system as well as provision of job opportunities for some of their people. However, just how much have we benefited from them?
In 2014, Malaysia’s export value to North Korea was merely $2 million. We also import iron and steel from North Korea with a value of US$200,000, and generally, we are not dependent on their supply as our main suppliers (China, Japan and South Korea) are still on good terms with Malaysia. Clearly, we do not lose out on much by cutting ties with them, as reiterated by our Minister of Foreign Affairs in a statement saying the value is “insignificant”.
Tourism and a visa-free travel have be suspended as well as the discontinuation of many tourism packages between the two countries by multiple agencies. The North Korean Tourism office in Kuala Lumpur was also seen to be locked from the outside.
Going forward, ceasing diplomatic relations with the totalitarian state of North Korea may be better at least symbolically, as it signals Malaysia’s rejection of North Korea’s violations of universal values such as basic human rights. Due to heavy censorship, many of the violations done by the North Korean government has gone unpublicised, which makes them a highly unpredictable state.
Our government’s swift response to the issue should be commended, as it demonstrates that Malaysia will stand up to “bullies” and any party who tries to tarnish our good reputation. Malaysians are left wondering what will happen next, but surely, we are confident that we will do the best that we can to deal with the conflict effectively.
By: Malaysian Progressives United Kingdom (MPUK)