Asia

Death, diplomatic spat could cost North Korea a rare friend

  • Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during an International Conference on Religion and Sustainability of Civilization at Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. Najib said Malaysia had no reason to "paint the North Koreans in a bad light" but added, "We expect them to understand that we apply the rule of law in Malaysia. (AP Photo)

    Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during an International Conference on Religion and Sustainability of Civilization at Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. Najib said Malaysia had no reason to "paint the North Koreans in a bad light" but added, "We expect them to understand that we apply the rule of law in Malaysia. (AP Photo)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this image made from Feb. 13, 2017, airport closed circuit television video and provided by Fuji Television, Kim Jong Nam, exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, talks to airport security and officials after he was attacked at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, died last week after apparently being poisoned in a Kuala Lumpur airport. (Fuji Television via AP)

    In this image made from Feb. 13, 2017, airport closed circuit television video and provided by Fuji Television, Kim Jong Nam, exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, talks to airport security and officials after he was attacked at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, died last week after apparently being poisoned in a Kuala Lumpur airport. (Fuji Television via AP)  (The Associated Press)

North Korea doesn't have many friends. There's China, its closest ally, and Singapore, where the North Korean elite have long gone in search of investors and shipping contracts. There are neighbors like Russia, and other nations isolated by politics and sanctions, like Syria and Cuba.

Until recently there was also — sort of — Malaysia. While it isn't one of Pyongyang's key diplomatic partners, it is one of the few places in the world where North Koreans can travel without a visa. As a result, for years, it's been a quiet destination for Northerners looking for jobs, schools and business deals. Today, you can find North Koreans studying in Malaysian universities, working in Malaysian mines and managing computer systems for Malaysian companies.

"North Koreans can act freely in Malaysia," said Lee Jaehyon, an analyst with the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

But for how long?

Last week, a long-estranged member of the North Korean ruling family was apparently poisoned by a pair of female attackers as he walked through the budget terminal of the Kuala Lumpur airport. Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korea's ruler, died soon after as he was being taken to a hospital. The diplomatic spat flared when Malaysian officials ordered an autopsy on the body, despite demands from North Korean diplomats that the corpse immediately be turned over to them. Malaysian police also arrested one North Korean in connection with the attack, and publicly announced the names of four other Northerners it wants to question, but who had left the country soon after the attack.

"Malaysia is very embarrassed," Lee said. "This incident has caused significant damage to Malaysia, and its image of safety and political stability." Malaysian officials, he said, were working to get past the incident as quickly as possible, fearing trouble for its tourism industry and its ability to attract foreign investment.

While officials insist they are following normal procedures with the investigation, the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, reacted with fury.

The two female suspects, he told reporters Monday, could be "fabricated ... to hide the true cause of death." A second autopsy was an "attempt to mangle again his body" and constituted human rights abuse, he said. Malaysian police "pinned the suspicion on us and targeted the investigation against it."

The entire investigation has been "politicized by Malaysia in collusion" with North Korea's bitter enemy, South Korea, he said.

Later in the day, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the investigation had proceeded properly.

Malaysia has no reason to "want to do something that would paint North Koreans in a bad light," he told reporters. "But we will be objective and we expect them to understand that we apply the rule of law in Malaysia."

Experts remained unsure about the diplomatic fallout from the killing and the increasingly incendiary language.

In the short run things are clearly rocky. Malaysia has recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang "for consultations," and called in the North Korean ambassador to explain his comments about the investigation.

But it can be hard to parse the level of vitriol in North Korea's official statements, which often include tsunamis of angry accusations and casual threats of nuclear annihilation.

"The North Koreans have a long-standing tradition of diplomatic bluster," said Er-win Tan, a scholar at the University of Malaya who has studied North Korea. "They have a very deeply embedded siege mentality, so I wouldn't read too much into what North Korea is saying." And if the two countries were not best friends "prior to this episode, the ties were relatively good, driven mostly by economic and trade considerations."

Many observers note that North Korea has little space — diplomatically or economically — to drive away the few friends it has. While trade between North Korea and Malaysia totaled just $5.1 million in 2015, that's a serious number in a country that exported just $3.1 billion in goods in 2014, and imported just $3.9 billion.

Lee, the South Korean analyst, said North Korean-Malaysian ties have clearly been dealt a blow, though he doubted Malaysia would completely sever ties with Pyongyang. The diplomatic troubles could also pull in Vietnam and Indonesia, since the two female attackers were reportedly from those countries, and at least one has said she was tricked into joining in the attack after being told it was a prank for a comedy TV show.

Lee expects many nations in Southeast Asia to re-examine their ties with North Korea, and probably also increase monitoring of North Korean diplomats posted in their countries.

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Sullivan reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.