The shocking murder of Kim Jong-nam at a Kuala Lumpur airport in February prompts many questions. For me, as a veteran Pyongyang-watcher, chief among them is this: Why have Southeast Asian nations been so inexplicably nice to this nastiest of regimes for so long?
Most Malaysians never thought about North Korea until now, and some who did found it comical, although the humour has become slightly more nervous. A well-referenced recent article on cilisos.my is headlined: “Five scary things North Korea can do to Malaysia if they marah [angry with] us” and illustrated with cartoon parodies of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, abundant online.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is darkness risible, amply deserving mockery. Yet it is no joke. Cilisos reckons Kim’s missiles don’t point at Malaysia, but the other four threats they postulate are very real.
Chemical and biological weapons? Already happened, at KLIA2. Sending in agents? Ditto. Abductions? That’s one crime Kim’s father Kim Jong-il actually admitted to. Japanese were the main target, but in the 1970s four Malaysians may have been nabbed too (they were escorts, though, so nobody much cared). Likeliest, Cilisos reckons, is that DPRK hackers could bring down Malaysia’s internet.
The standoff over the murder continues, with each country taking the other’s nationals hostage. Here Malaysia has the better hand, given the numbers. The sole Malaysians in Pyongyang are a few unlucky embassy staff, as against 315 North Koreans in Malaysia.
What on earth are more than 300 North Koreans doing in Malaysia? And what the hell was the Southeast Asian nation thinking when – uniquely – it granted visa-free travel to a regime under multiple UN sanctions, including travel bans on multiple named individuals?
Now the spotlight is on, it turns out one Malaysian company was actually a front for illegal North Korean arms sales. What a surprise! It seems very likely that more such instances will come to light.
Kim Jong-nam’s murder has finally jolted Malaysian authorities into some action. Visa-free travel has been revoked, and the DPRK’s rude ambassador was rightly sent packing. Yet Malaysia has still not directly accused Kim Jong-un of killing his half-brother, despite all the evidence. Nor does it plan to end trade, small though this is.
Caution is appropriate while investigations continue. Yet, ultimately, honour surely demands that Malaysia break off diplomatic and indeed all relations with this rogue regime: so utterly contemptuous as to commit a dangerous assassination on a friendly country’s soil.
That’s what Myanmar did in 1983. Then known as Burma, and ruled by generals suspicious of the wider world, the country was good friends with the similarly introverted DPRK – which repaid that friendship by blowing up Yangon’s Martyrs Memorial in a bid to kill South Korea’s visiting president, Chun Doo-hwan. Chun survived by arriving late, but 19 died including four of his ministers.
Then as now Pyongyang denied any role, though one bomber was caught and confessed all. He died in jail 25 years later, never acknowledged by the regime that had dispatched him. For a decade Myanmar shunned the DPRK, but eventually contacts – mainly military – resumed.
In Southeast Asia as elsewhere, the nice, useful Korea is of course the other one. South Korea is renowned regionally for construction, particularly after building one of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers.
North Korea by contrast is neither use nor ornament. Yet because the South is a close US ally, in the 1970s a few states recognised the DPRK to make a point.
Thailand is another nation bafflingly indulgent of the DPRK, which in 1999 sent a hit squad to kidnap one of its diplomats trying to defect there. Only a car crash near the Laos border foiled this attempt. The Thais were miffed for a month or two, but soon resumed business as usual.
North Korea also buys rice, but rarely pays. While Thailand’s Loxley Pacific built the DPRK’s first mobile phone network, it was displaced by Egypt’s Orascom, which offered 3G and was duly shafted in turn. Loxley still runs North Korea’s internet access, which can’t bring much profit but has reputational costs, including alleged implication in 2014’s famed Sony Pictures hack.
Why put up with all this? Kudos for trying, but it’s past time for Southeast Asia to admit that being nice to North Korea has failed. The Kim Jong-nam situation shows the leopard has in no way changed its spots. Pyongyang despises weakness and has cynically exploited kindness.
But the region might finally be catching on. Last November the DPRK’s request to set up a dialogue partnership was rejected by Asean, citing two illegal nuclear tests that year alone. The use of the banned nerve agent VX to murder Kim Jong-nam should be a clincher, and a turning point.
Some nations have to deal with North Korea: the great powers, and its neighbours. But others don’t, and arguably shouldn’t. Pyongyang is all pain, no gain. Southeast Asian countries should ditch their illusions and boycott this recidivist rogue until it mends its ways.
Aidan Foster-Carter is an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, UK, and a freelance analyst covering the peninsula for publications including the Guardian, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal.