The snake of Pyongyang: Why Kim Jong Nam’s murder changes everything for Malaysia

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Kim Jong Nam’s murder has pushed relations between Malaysia and North Korea to breaking point. The incident marks a new era of North Korean diplomacy.

By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross

The cold-blooded assassination of one of North Korea’s famous sons, Kim Jong Nam, comes straight from a spy thriller. The man who would once be leader of the world’s most secretive nation is dead. His murder has triggered a diplomatic spat which may uncover a much darker relationship between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang.

Malaysian money has been used to assist the North Korean leadership

Reuters reports that the North Korean regime’s ability to continue amid crumbling economics, failing agriculture and tired infrastructure is at least partly thanks to one Malaysian businessman. He is the founding chief of Malaysia Korea partners (MKP), Han Hun Il.

Han has been funnelling money through subsidiary banks based in Pyongyang for some time, claimed a North Korean defector. Lee Chol Ho worked for Han for nine years and said his former boss has used MKP as a “control tower” for his empire. When the North Korean ruling party visited Malaysia Han was the only person they wanted to see, he said.

Deputy Home Minister, Nur Jazlan Mohamad has called on the central bank to investigate the possible misuse of the country’s banking systems. Whether the claims are true or not, North Korean spy networks in Malaysia seem to have pulled off an assassination in plain sight.

The North Korean leadership has a history of risking diplomatic relations for the sake of killing off high-profile targets. The country once had a cordial diplomatic relationship with Myanmar but this fell apart when operatives tried to kill then South Korean president, Chun Doo Hwan, on Burmese soil.

The two countries have enjoyed a special relationship

Malaysia-North Korean relations have been warm for many years. Malaysian citizens are one of under 30 countries with an embassy in Pyongyang, and the only country that enjoys visa-free access to the reclusive state. North Koreans are able to work in mines in Malaysia and North Korean students study at Malaysian universities

The chief executive of Malaysia’s External Trade Development Corporation, Dzulkifli Mahmud, recently boasted of the strong trade links between the two nations. He said that North Korea was “now looking at using Malaysia as a gateway to Southeast Asian markets”.

Officially, North Korea-Malaysian trade was worth US$4 million in 2016, but this masks the scores of illicitly registered North Korean front companies operating in Malaysia. Companies like Glocom, a military equipment company based in the little India area of Kuala Lumpur, which was exposed earlier this year.

The company was managed by the North Korean intelligence agency and was bypassing United Nations sanctions. They were discovered when authorities intercepted a shipment of 45 boxes of battlefield radios bound for Eritrea.

What will the future look like for this “special” relationship?

Malaysia had previously given North Korea a lot of leeway in their business activities. Under the old system unless Malaysian authorities received concrete evidence of a company engaging in illicit activity, North Korean enterprises could quietly go about their business. That was before Kim Jong Nam died on a cold airport floor.

If this were to change, North Koreans would lose valuable opportunities for illicit trading, but Malaysia would be hit just as hard. North Korea buys large amounts of refined oil, rubber and palm oil from Malaysian suppliers. Malaysia sends steel and electronics in the other direction.

The Kim Jong Nam incident marks a watershed in North Korean diplomacy.

The one person to publicly profit from this embarrassing breach of security is the Teflon Prime Minister Najib Razak. His successful negotiations for the safe release of 11 Malaysian nationals stranded in North Korea has boosted his popularity and restored a sense of competence to his scandal-plagued government.

Asian politics specialist Alex Dukalskis told Quartz “This could have been disastrous in both political and humanitarian senses for the Malaysian government so it had a limited set of options.” He added “I am not so sure that [North Korea] outmanoeuvred Malaysia, but both governments appeared to defuse what was a crisis for each of them.”

Kim Jong Un undoubtedly won the spoils of this bold operation. His request for the return of his brother’s body was granted. All of the North Korean suspects in the killing returned home. He played hardball on the international stage and emerged the victor. It would not be a surprise to see him try similar moves in the future. Najib Razak cosied up to a snake and got bitten. The snake now has a taste for blood.