This article will weigh media reports by Malaysia Home Agencies for the last few weeks on the death of Kim Jong Nam.
On the 20th of March, it has been reported now Malaysian police are hunting for more North Korean suspects over the killing of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the new suspects are in addition to the seven North Koreans already being sought in last month’s poisoning death of Kim Jong-Nam at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.
Between 14 to 15th of March, Malaysian Home Minister, Zahid Hamidi announced that DNA sample has been obtained from Kim Jong-Nam’s son 5 days ago.
However, the most interesting development came a few weeks prior. It is reported that on 7th March police sealed off the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur to ascertain the number of officials inside. The Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, Nur Jazlan were quoted to have said that the move is to physically identify all the embassy staff who are here. This is reported in all news both online and offline.
Bilateral Relations between Malaysia and North Korea have taken a dip since Kim’s death. Now the lives of 9 Malaysian Embassy staff largely depends on how far this diplomatic impasse can be broken. And press releases from key agencies plays a very important part in this equation.
Hence can non-sanitised public reports or announcement made by local Agencies mitigate the current dismal relations between Malaysian-North Korea? Or can it make worst?
It is worth noting that, at a heightened level of political insecurity between two countries, statements made by key leaders are crucial and will be closely monitored. What is even more critical is the fact that- public statements can be perceived as a subtle indicator /gesture or intention towards either improving or deteriorating the existing bilateral relations.
There are other factors to be considered if we would further frame the abovementioned question from the Malaysia-North Korea relations context.
Any direct and non-curated announcement will only make Malaysia’s card to be easily read or misread by North Korea. For instance, there are two things North Korea will likely learn or understand when the Home Ministry announced that the DNA sample has been obtained from Kim Jong-Nam’s son
First – Malaysia is certainly in touch with Jong Nam’s son. For the record, North Korea leadership’s views this political exile family as a threat. Public announcement of contact with this family will only sour the already bad diplomatic relations.
Second, it gives incentives for North Korea to speculate that Malaysia could return Jong Nam’s body to his son as opposed directly to North Korea. This provides ample motivation for North Korea officials to be even more suspicious, recalcitrant and demanding for Jong Nam’s body per-say during on-going discussions.
The bottom line is – it is wise to follow a good balance approach. We should not be entirely quiet. Instead, we should be Tactful and effective in handling our public communication, especially from Government machinery.
It is also surmised that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Department are coordinating back-door diplomacy. Hence any hardline statements by Home Agencies or the Police will make an ongoing quiet diplomacy tricky.
In principal, there must be a mutually understood and followed communication policy at the National Security Council level on the issue. However, this policy should have been designed and agreed early on, to avoid what now seems to be an uncoordinated and less than clever projection of message by various home agencies.
Analyst observing the development in the Korea Peninsular may agree that the latest Military preparation, between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States, is to an extent – unstable and worrying.
In direct retaliation against the joint US-South Korea military exercise, known as Foal Eagle – North Korea on the 6th of March fired four dry ballistic missiles. Three landed into 350 km (217 miles) from coastal Japan. This is the closest landing yet on a US ally soil.
The US immediately deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea on the 8th of March. While on the 9th, the US up the ante by rejecting a Chinese proposal aimed at reducing tension in the Korean peninsula, saying all previous attempts to persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program have failed and there is a need to find “new ways” to engage.
To be clear, this situation has occurred before. Last year in March 2016, in response to US- South Korea similar military drill, North Korea warned that it could use the hydrogen bomb to vaporize Manhattan. The situation soon after cooled down.
However, what is worrying now is the change in geopolitical context comparatively to what we had from 2016.
As one would predict, these involved the newly minted US President Donald Trump who temperament is hard to pin down on and the increasingly unpredictable leadership style of Kim Jong Un’s.
Donald Trump has exhibited tendencies to be literal in his foreign policy execution. While young Kim has shown to be increasingly anxious in consolidating his power in North Korea and broader East Asia. The brazen daylight killing of his stepbrother in one of South East Asia biggest airport exhibits this point precisely.
Given the above, now the valid question is – how much restraint both leaders may have given the enormous complexity that is surrounding them.China may have sensed this when it called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting annual military exercises, to prevent what it called a “head-on collision.”
And what this has to do with Malaysia?
I would not want to speculate a war is looming, hence be described of doing such if the situation turn otherwise, – but for practical reasons, Malaysia needs to study these political trends diligently when it comes to negotiating the release of our Embassy staff. Even with skirmishes that could occur in the region, the nine remaining life in Pyongyang will be in quandary.
Malaysia must equally expedite its back-door diplomacy with North Korea through China. As a member of Non-Align Movement, Malaysia must not be shown to side any countries pertinently from the Western Hemisphere on the issue. I believe as we are speaking, our Prime Minister has begun to move towards that direction.
There is also a need to seek a quid-pro-quo solution even though a crime has been done in KLIA 2. Malaysian law must be applied without compromise. However, the process itself must not be projected in a way that suggests Malaysia is punishing and shaming the state of North Korea as the accomplice.
Instead, it must be on the singular nature of the crime that has been conducted. From a broader perspective, this may help smoothen our diplomatic process of saving our people in Pyongyang.
The above article has appeared earlier in New Straits Times 13 March 2017 with a different title. The content however, remains the same.