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Will the North Korea-Malaysia Crisis Cause a Shift in Southeast Asian States’ Relationships with Pyongyang?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 15, 2017

malaysia-north korea A view of the North Korea embassy that has been sealed off in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 7, 2017. (Lai Seng Sin/Reuters)

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As I noted in a piece I co-authored with Scott Snyder shortly after the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, Malaysia is but one of many Southeast Asian nations that have relatively robust diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. Or at least—Malaysia had relatively robust ties with Pyongyang. Those ties existed before the brazen killing in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, the travel ban by Pyongyang on Malaysian citizens in North Korea and Malaysia on North Korean citizens in Malaysia, and the increasingly hostile rhetoric between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur. (The latest news is that Kuala Lumpur is in talks with Pyongyang about the return of Malaysian citizens from North Korea, but it would be hard to imagine the two nations’ relationship returning to normal any time soon.) Since the crisis began, groups of Malaysians have routinely protested outside the North Korean embassy to demand their fellow citizens back, and it is hard to imagine Pyongyang’s public image in Malaysia getting worse than it is now.

Before the assassination and the subsequent bilateral crisis, Malaysia had apparently been working to bolster economic and diplomatic ties with North Korea. It may not exactly have been a “special” bilateral relationship between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, as The Diplomat notes, but ties were relatively robust. As the BBC notes, Malaysia long has played a role as a facilitator for talks between Pyongyang and foreign powers, but in recent years the relationship apparently had expanded. Malaysia and North Korea had agreed upon a mutual visa-waiver program that would allow for greater business and tourist travel between the two nations. Malaysian firms had begun looking for economic opportunities in the North, although the size of the legitimate two-way trade remained very small. The BBC reports that Malaysia had, however, become an important site for illegal North Korean money-making activities, including alleged weapons deals; Reuters has reported that North Korea’s spy agency sold military radios and other military devices out of a site in Malaysia, even though the United Nations has banned Pyongyang from selling military equipment. Some other reports have speculated that Pyongyang was using Malaysia as a major hub for spying activities.

Yet even after the blatant Kim Jong Nam killing and the ensuing hostage situation, many other Southeast Asian nations still retain significant links to Pyongyang. And so far, there does not seem to be any rush in other Southeast Asian capitals to reassess these ties, even as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak has taken a tough approach to Pyongyang in the wake of the Kim Jong Nam killing. (Najib also may sense that looking tough, and focusing on the North Korea story, can help deflect public attention from the past year’s worth of graft scandals.) For some of these states, like Cambodia, the ties are based partly on historic links; former King Sihanouk had close personal ties with North Korean leaders. North Korea also helped build a new museum near Angkor Wat—a museum utilizing the massive paintings and murals a North Korean state art studio has become known for.

Since Cambodia is a relatively poor country, with a semi-authoritarian leader, maintaining ties with Pyongyang has little reputational cost, even after the Kim Jong Nam killing. The same is basically true for Laos, which Pyongyang apparently sees as both a place to make money from state-run Korean restaurants and a site to try to interdict refugees fleeing from the North to the South. Laos’s government is not one that is particularly sensitive to any type of reputational cost from its diplomatic relationships. Myanmar may be changing politically, but its powerful military reportedly built ties with North Korea over the past two decades. Myanmar civilian leaders, and foreign powers, have urged the armed forces to cut these ties, but it remains unclear to what extent that has happened. (Myanmar definitely has become more willing to criticize Pyongyang’s actions in recent years, as David Steinberg notes, but whether it has totally cut military ties remains uncertain.)

Still, for wealthier Southeast Asian nations—ones more sensitive about their international reputations—will the Kim Jong Nam killing, and the subsequent Malaysia-North Korea standoff, lead to a reassessment of relations with Pyongyang? These nations have long believed in trying to work with North Korea through a consensual, low-key approach, and they may want to maintain decent ties with the North in case the Koreas ever reunite. In that case, it would be important to have contacts among the former North Korean elite.

But that consensual, low-key approach to the North may be failing. The relationship has backfired even for lenient Malaysia, and Pyongyang appears to be increasingly willing to take actions that destabilize regional relations in both Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Thailand and Singapore are the important countries to watch, in terms of how Southeast Asia will now approach the Kim Jong Un regime. These countries are of vital economic importance to the North, but North Korea is not of vital economic interest to them. As the South China Morning Post reports, “Southeast Asian countries are waking up to the reality that their decades-old bond with North Korea, forged during the time of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, may count for little when dealing with the unpredictable third-generation leader Kim Jong-un.” Kavi Chongkittavorn of The Nation (Bangkok) notes that Thailand’s government helped create a space for North Korea to use ASEAN meetings to discuss sensitive issues with other major regional powers, and in 2008 Singapore convinced Pyongyang to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. But, Kavi thinks, voices in Southeast Asia may be questioning the value of maintaining these ties, in the wake of the Kim Jong Nam killing, Pyongyang’s ballistic missile test, and other provocations by the North. Kavi notes that Southeast Asian states must realize “Pyongyang has abused the friendship and trust of ASEAN and its members … and tackle the issue of North Korea’s espionage activities within its member countries. It is an open secret that some ASEAN members … have been considered havens of clandestine activities by North Korea.”

A first sign that Singapore, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations might move away from their relatively lenient approach to Pyongyang will be whether they crack down harder on North Korean embassies in the region. They could limit the number of diplomats and pay much closer attention to whether these embassies are conducting illegal businesses.

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