As one of the most isolated and reviled nations on earth, North Korea might be expected to want to hold on to what few friends it has. But the Hermit Kingdom seemed unconcerned with maintaining friendships this week as it rebuked both Malaysia and China, with which it has enjoyed unusually warm relations, aggravating tensions sparked by the assassination of the North Korean dictator’s half-brother.
On Thursday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency accused Malaysia of colluding with South Korea in a “conspiratorial racket” to blame Pyongyang for last week’s murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged sibling of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Referring to Kim Jong-nam only as a citizen rather than by name, the regime mouthpiece claimed that Malaysia was principally responsible for the death since it happened on Malaysian soil.
Until now, Malaysia has had uncharacteristically good relations with the secretive country, allowing visa-free travel by its citizens and employing them in various sectors including mining. The February 13 killing of Kim, which has been likened to the plot of a Cold War spy novel, has opened a widening rift in diplomatic relations between the countries.
On Friday, Malaysian police announced that Kim died after being poisoned with VX, a deadly nerve agent that has been banned under anti-chemical weapons conventions. While a woman each from Vietnam and Indonesia have been accused of actually carrying out the assassination, Malaysian authorities have named eight North Koreans as being involved in conceiving and staging the plot.
At the same time as it has been aggravating relations with Kuala Lumpur, Pyongyang has also been engaged in a war of words with Beijing, its principal trade partner and ally. In a blistering response to China’s recent announcement of a halt to coal imports over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, the KCNA on Thursday accused its ally of carrying out “inhumane” policies at the direction of the United States. As well as straining ties with Malaysia, Kim Jong-nam’s murder has also been widely seen as a thumb in the eye of China, which had been protecting the exiled member of the Kim dynasty while he lived in Macau.
A perennial pariah on the world stage, North Korea has a history of tweaking the noses of even the friendliest of countries.
“North Korea has been willing to ‘burn’ allies in the past. For example, in 1971, the DPRK embassy in Sri Lanka organized a plan with Maoist insurgents to overthrow the socialist government,” Benjamin Young, a Fulbright researcher based in Seoul, told The Diplomat, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The uprising failed and North Korean diplomats were expelled from Sri Lanka. Why were the North Koreans willing to burn bridges with a socialist government that was generally supportive of the DPRK’s cause for reunification?”
Young said that history had shown North Korea to operate in complete defiance of the normal rules of international relations.
“My general impression is that North Korea has always been a revolutionary state that is committed to fostering and spreading international instability,” he said. “The conventions of international diplomacy do not matter to the regime in Pyongyang.”