On February 13 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, died in Malaysia. Kim was apparently poisoned with a toxic liquid while awaiting a flight to Macau. North Korea initially denied that the victim was Kim Jong-nam, and denounced the Malaysian investigation as an act of pandering to South Korea and the United States. A diplomatic spat soon ensued, where North Korea and Malaysia tussled over the victim’s body and the investigation into the murder suspects. On March 4, the North Korean ambassador was expelled from Malaysia, prompting Pyongyang to order the Malaysian ambassador out of North Korea. Days later, North Korea barred all Malaysians from leaving the country, an act which Malaysia responded to by blocking all North Koreans from exiting its territory. That was the height of the crisis, but for now, the dust seems to have settled. On March 16, Kim Jong-nam’s family gave permission to the Malaysian government to manage his remains. Two weeks later, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Kim Jong-nam’s body will be sent to North Korea, and that Malaysians and North Koreans affected by the travel bans will be allowed to return home. Trials have been set for the two women charged with Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong.
Arguably, the deterioration of Malaysian-North Korean relations was unexpected. Since June 1973, the two states have shared what might be considered a special relationship: Malaysia is one of fewer than 30 countries to have an embassy in Pyongyang, and was the only country whose citizens could enter North Korea without a visa. Not only did Malaysia boast of strong trade relations with North Korea, but North Koreans also could study in Malaysian universities, or work in mines there. That being said, Kim Jong-nam’s assassination and the resulting fallout are not likely to be detrimental for Malaysia and its leaders. Rather, the consequences are likely to be disproportionately negative for the North Koreans.
From an economic standpoint, there does not seem to be much to lose for Malaysia. Officially, two-way trade stands only at $4 million (in 2016). Malaysia has other trading partners it can rely on within and outside the region. 50.9% of its exports, amounting to $96.5 billion worth of shipments, goes to its top five partners: Singapore, China, the United States, Japan, and Thailand. Moreover, it is unlikely that Malaysia has reaped significant benefit from the North Korean front companies operating within its soil. The North Korean spy agency, for one, had been running an arms operation out of the Little India neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur. The contributions of such illicit companies to the Malaysian economy pale in comparison to the $300 billion foreign investment in Iskandar Malaysia, Sabah Development Corridor, East Coast Economic Region, Northern Corridor Economic Region and Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. With a network of regional and bilateral free trade agreements (with ASEAN and the EU, for example) and four upcoming investment mega-projects, Malaysia does not have to rely on North Korean trade and investment.
On the other hand, the Kim Jong-nam incident could represent a greater economic loss for North Korea. While China’s trade with North Korea has increased, Pyongyang lost its third-largest trading partner on May 1, 2017, when India halted all trade (except food and medicine) with North Korea. Should the Trump administration exert more pressure on the international community, North Korea might lose other trading partners such as Pakistan ($43.1 million worth of exports) and Burkina Faso ($32.8 million worth of exports). While Malaysia was not particularly significant as an exporting or importing country to North Korea, when Pyongyang could hemorrhage further trade partners, Malaysia was an unneeded setback for North Korea.
The Kim Jong-nam episode might instead benefit the Malaysian government. Support for Prime Minister Najib Razak dipped during the height of the 1MDB scandal, where he was accused of pocketing $1 billion from the state investment fund. As David Han and Shawn Ho argue, the administration’s careful and transparent handling of the case might change that. The Malaysian government helped to defuse the crisis by allowing the North Korean suspects to leave after being questioned. It also demonstrating great sensitivity in allowing the Indonesian and Vietnamese governments access to the two women who had been arrested in connection with the case. Doubtlessly, the Prime Minister’s standing among Malaysians has improved, especially with the return of the nine Malaysians who had been unable to leave North Korea. It is entirely possible that Kim Jong-un enjoyed a similar revival in popularity in North Korea. However, in the absence of information, it would be speculative to assume that the North Korean propaganda machinery used this incident to promote the Dear Respected Comrade.
In the long run, Malaysia might improve its standing internationally by minimizing its links to North Korea. In its World Report 2016, the Human Rights Watch criticized Malaysia for its “increased harassment and persecution of human rights defenders, activists, political opposition figures, and journalists.” It would be helpful to Malaysia’s image if the country is not seen as a bedfellow to North Korea, which has often been singled out for its human rights record. On April 18, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley demanded that the Security Council act against North Korea’s abuses, citing how the North Korean government “forces many of its citizens, including political prisoners, to work in life threatening conditions in coal mines and other dangerous industries to finance the regime’s military.” More recently, Pyongyang has also come under fire for its nuclear and missile activities. Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, expressed Beijing’s “grave concern” a day after North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister said Pyongyang would test missiles weekly and use nuclear weapons if threatened. As a member of the UN Security Council from 2015 to 2016, Malaysia had urged the use of mediation to resolve conflicts peacefully. Thus, it might be more beneficial for Malaysia to disassociate itself from a state much of the world considers hostile, belligerent and unpredictable. Malaysia has already condemned North Korea’s missile tests, supported UN resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang, and worked against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction from states including North Korea.The crisis over Kim Jong-nam should be considered yet another step in this direction.
If anything, it is North Korea’s reputation that has suffered yet another hit from what has been called a “Cold War-style assassination.” North Korea, in this instance, has demonstrated an utter lack of regard for the sovereignty of other states. Pyongyang received much flak for its involvement in the Rangoon Bombing of 1983, where South Koreans and Burmese were killed in an assassination plot against then-President of South Korea Chun Doo Hwan. Three decades later, it appears that the North Korean government remains amenable to exercising violence in other countries to achieve domestic political aims. North Korea’s pariah status in the international community is unlikely to change if the regime continues to pursue such a policy.
The events following Kim Jong-nam’s assassination have revealed the unique ties, from diplomats to dollars, between Malaysia and North Korea. With nuclear tensions simmering in East Asia, it remains to be seen if Malaysia has ultimately benefited from this unexpected crisis.