Malaysia’s N. Korea Ties Now a Major Embarrassment

With the recall of North Korea’s ambassador in the wake of the murder of dictator Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother, Malaysian authorities may want to rid themselves of a relationship that has blossomed since the two countries opened reciprocal embassies 34 years ago and has become embarrassing to say the least.

Kim Jong-nam was allegedly murdered spectacularly at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 14 by two women, Doan Thi Huang from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, when they sneaked up behind him and smeared his face with VX, one of the world’s most lethal nerve gas agents. He died 20 minutes later on the way to the hospital. The case has widened to have international implications.

It was one thing to exploit Malaysia’s hospitality for entrée into business and influence throughout Southeast Asia but quite another to embarrass the host by a high-profile murder in the country’s main international airport.

“They will have to cut down their relationship with North Korea,” said Alex Huang, a South Korean restaurateur who operates 25 restaurant businesses in Kuala Lumpur and who hosted Jong-nam at his establishment eight times and who has become an influential figure in the Korean community in Malaysia “(The Malaysians) cannot accept what they did.”

Malaysia is one of a handful of countries that allow North Korea to export laborers, who are considered by human rights activists to be exploited and most of whose pay is sequestered by authorities back home. The United Nations has charged that tens of thousands of North Koreans are forced to work abroad and earn up to US$2.3 billion annually in foreign currency for the country. While the majority are in China and Russia, besides Malaysia they are employed in Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Some 300 toil in coal mines in the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo for wages that go almost entirely to the North Korean government. Several hundred more have jobs in Kuala Lumpur, many of them with companies that are fronts for illicit North Korean dealings in violation of UN sanctions. One, according to Reuters, is Glocom, a military equipment company run by North Korean intelligence agents that sells battlefield radio equipment.

Last year, Reuters reported, agents for an unnamed country intercepted a Glocom shipment of illegal radios bound for Eritrea. It would be natural to assume that unnamed country notified Malaysian authorities of the shipment and equally natural to question why the Malaysians continued to allow the company to operate on Malaysian soil. The office, in Kuala Lumpur’s Little India area, apparently closed recently and the mailbox, Reuters reported, was stuffed with unattended mail.

Among shady figures who entered Malaysia recently was 47-year-old Ri Jong-chul, a chemist who had entered the country last year. Malaysia has already shown its anger – first by stopping the visa-free policy under which North Koreans could enter the country without visas and then by expelling the North Korean ambassador, Kang Chol. The ambassador had to pack his bags after failing to respond to a summons to show up at the Malaysian foreign ministry, incensed by his claim that Malaysia and South Korea had conspired in Kim Jong-nam’s assignation as a “politically motivated act.”

Having already recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang, Malaysia has promised more drastic measures, including a possible break in diplomatic relations, if the North Korean Embassy persists in blaming Malaysia for the killing. Malaysia has also asked to question the first secretary of the embassy, believed responsible for masterminding Kim’s poisoning. The two women, who claim they were duped into the murder believing they were doing a stunt for reality television, face murder charges.

Malaysian authorities suspect that Ri produced the VX nerve agent, using chemicals sent by diplomatic pouch from Pyongyang to the North Korean embassy, but inexplicably let him go home via Beijing after failing to come up with the evidence needed to charge him. Stopping in Beijing, he vehemently denied any role, accusing the Malaysians of using “torture” to try to get him to talk.

In fact, the Malaysian police are widely viewed as having botched the investigation, missing pieces of evidence as well as allowing Ri to elude them. Ri is believed to have been spotted by surveillance camera inside the airport during the assassination, plotted and witnessed by four other North Koreans who then took off for Jakarta, from which they returned to Pyongyang via Vladivostok and Dubai. Malaysia also wants to talk to an employee of the North Korean airline Air Koryo, which does not fly to Kuala Lumpur. His role is not clear while he remains inside the North Korean embassy along with the first secretary.

“The Malaysian police are stupid,” says Alex Hwang the restaurateur. “It is 100 percent sure Ri was involved. He was making the VX, but he never talks.”

One great mystery is why Kim Jong-nam’s Chinese bodyguards didn’t escort him to the check-in counter where the two women assaulted him as he was about to check in for a flight to Macau where he was living with his second wife, son and daughter. One theory is simply that he figured there was no need for security inside the airport terminal.

In constant fear for his life at the hands of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam visited Kuala Lumpur regularly in search of funds and business deals. Contrary to reports that he was seeing girlfriends, says Hwang, he was often accompanied by his second wife.

Another question is why the assassination team selected the airport terminal for the deed. They apparently knew there was little real security and that the women, who claim they thought they were carrying out a prank for a reality TV show, could simply walk away. In fact, they did just that – after washing their hands of the VX agent – and were caught only when the Vietnamese woman was recognized as she returned two days later to fly to Hanoi.

More recriminations and tragedy seem inevitable. Ambassador Kang, after getting to Pyongyang, will almost certainly eventually be executed. There is ample precedent for executing returning ambassadors. After the execution in December 2013 of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle-in-law of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba, both his relatives, were also recalled and executed.

“It is 100 percent Kang will executed,” Hwang said. “He is finished.”

As for members of Kim Jong-nam’s family, there has been no sign of them in Macau where they were staying in an apartment complex. The son, Kim Han-sol, educated in Europe, has been quite critical of Kim Jong-un – and could be vulnerable for that reason.