Over the past week, the death of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, in Malaysia has escalated into a full-blown diplomatic row between the two countries, with Malaysia recalling its ambassador from Pyongyang after North Korea’s diplomat in Kuala Lumpur cast doubt on the impartiality of an ongoing government investigation.
But as this rift has continued to deepen, international media coverage has interestingly focused on the alleged special relationship the two countries have enjoyed up to this point. While it is no doubt true that Malaysia has a deep and broad relationship with North Korea, bilateral ties also need to be put into proper perspective lest they be misperceived.
At first glance, the Malaysia-North Korea relationship may seem rather special. Malaysia has an embassy in the so-called hermit kingdom and even enjoys the rare status of visa-free travel with Pyongyang. Pepper that with a number of discrete developments over the years, including the conferring of an award by a Malaysian private university to Kim Jong-un and the holding of a round of track-two U.S.-North Korea talks, and you can easily craft a narrative of a North Korea-Malaysia special relationship.
The problem is that this illusion simply is not grounded in reality, for three reasons. First, Malaysia’s relationship with North Korea is not really that unique from the perspective of either side when seen in the broader context of their foreign policies. Second, the Malaysia-North Korea relationship not as warm as some have suggested because Malaysia has had to balance its desire for good ties with Pyongyang with its other bilateral, regional, and international interactions and commitments. And third, even before the recent incident, bilateral ties had actually already been under growing strain due to North Korea’s bad behavior and the international scrutiny that has resulted.
Not That Special
Malaysia’s relationship with North Korea is hardly as unique as suggested. Part of the hype around the Malaysia-North Korea relationship is due to the misleading “hermit kingdom” stereotype that Pyongyang is completely isolated from the world, when in fact there are dozens of countries that still have diplomatic relations with it today. For example, though much is made of the fact that Malaysia and North Korea both have embassies in the others’ countries, recent estimates indicate that the Malaysian embassy is in fact only one of around two dozen foreign embassies in Pyongyang, while Malaysia is one of roughly 50 countries hosting North Korean embassies.
Malaysia-North Korea ties also do not look that special when considered from the broader foreign policy perspectives of both countries. In Pyongyang’s eyes, the origins of the Malaysia-North Korea relationship in the 1970s are rooted less in some unique bond than a broader campaign to cultivate a network of ties with the developing world outside of the communist bloc to boost its diplomatic standing relative to Seoul and promote economic development. A similar logic persists today. For North Korea, Malaysia is important as a partner for its own sake, but it is part of a wider effort to cultivate economic, diplomatic, and people-to-people ties with the subregion as a whole, with other partners as well like Singapore and Vietnam. This is a point familiar to those who closely track North Korean interactions with Southeast Asia, even if these only get wider international attention during occasional multi-country delegations from Pyongyang to the subregion.
Seen within the context of Malaysian foreign policy, ties with North Korea are not that unique either. Following a brief period of alignment with Western powers against the communist bloc following its independence in 1967, Malaysia then shifted its foreign policy approach to a more non-aligned, independent one in the 1970s that has largely endured since, albeit with the usual shifts and contradictions inherent in such vague formulations. That explains why Malaysia has been able to strengthen relations with the United States over the past few years despite differences with Washington on so many areas, from Wismaputra’s continued non-recognition of Israel to its relations with so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea to its deepening ties with China (See: “Malaysia is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit“). This approach may seem contradictory, but it affords the Malaysian government the necessary space to realize its interests, be it capitalizing on economic opportunities or boosting regime legitimization (See: “The Danger of Najibizing Malaysia’s Foreign Policy“).
Though that might seem odd to some foreign observers, it is far from the case from a Southeast Asian perspective. Viewed from a post-Cold War, U.S.-China rivalry lens, it is easy to forget that some of Southeast Asia’s most influential states were either communist or non-aligned at various points decades prior, and some of them still are to a much lesser degree. That helps explain why other ASEAN states beyond Malaysia continue to enjoy ties with North Korea. North Korean influence in Southeast Asia can be seen in various forms today, even though they only tend to make the headlines when tied to items of popular interest, be it the North Korean-built museum in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex or the chain of “Pyongyang” restaurants in ASEAN capitals (or, previously, the military relationship between Pyongyang and Naypyidaw). There are in fact other diplomatic, economic, and people-to-people interactions that are far more significant but much less-known, with the Singapore-based Choson Exchange being a case in point.
Second, Malaysia’s relationship with North Korea is in fact not as cozy as one might be led to believe. Though some of the recent commentary tends to treat Malaysia-North Korea relations independently, from a Malaysian foreign policy perspective, the real challenge is how to balance maintaining good ties with Pyongyang with other broader diplomatic considerations. This includes preserving good ties with key Northeast Asian and Western countries like South Korea (which initially lobbied hard for Malaysia not to recognize North Korea), Japan, and the United States; upholding its commitment to regional and international institutions like ASEAN and the UN; and being mindful of its record on functional issues like nonproliferation which Malaysia has begun to get more serious about in recent years.
The result is a rather tricky balancing act. On the one hand, Malaysia has not only maintained good ties with Pyongyang, but also continued ongoing efforts to expand ties even further in fields like economics, culture, and education. Malaysia has been encouraging more North Korean companies to get involved in the bilateral relationship, and the two sides even inked a memorandum of understanding on cultural exchanges in early February focused on areas like museums, archives, libraries, arts, and heritage.
But on the other hand, Malaysia has condemned North Korea’s missile tests, supported UN resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang, and even endorsed initiatives like the U.S.-led, Bush-era Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) that aimed to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction from states and non-state actors including North Korea. This is consistent with Malaysia’s domestic focus on bolstering its own nonproliferation record, including through stronger export controls with the passage of the Strategic Trade Act in 2010. It is also aligned with the international image it has tried to project regionally and internationally, including its most recent two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which ended last year.
That brings us to the third and final point: that bilateral ties in recent years, far from being on some upward trajectory, had in fact been growing increasingly complicated due to North Korea’s behavior. Even as inroads have been made between the two countries in specific areas like economics or culture, the big picture from Malaysia’s perspective is that Pyongyang’s recent battery of missile tests and the resulting international scrutiny has complicated the already tricky balance the Southeast Asian state has had to walk and raised questions about the existing links it has with North Korea.
A major turning point, as Malaysian diplomats will attest to, was the unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2270 in March 2016. As Malaysia has moved to ensure it is fully implementing its provisions, that has inevitably meant greater scrutiny on the full range of bilateral contacts it enjoys with North Korea, which includes not just security-related interactions such as the entry of North Korean ships, but broader people-to-people ties advanced down to the North Korean workers present in Malaysia.
That deepens the existing tension between Malaysia’s preference to preserve ties with North Korea and its commitment to upholding its international obligations, and complicates the Southeast Asian state’s ability to insulate other aspects of the relationship from international scrutiny. Malaysia’s implementation report on resolution 2270 submitted to the UNSC last August best captures this deepening struggle. The Malaysian government had to specify exactly how each of the interactions it has with North Korea could have a bearing on international attempts to sanction the country as well as what criteria it would use to determine whether or not it would have to sever or downgrade these links. The report also indicated that Malaysia had officially imposed restrictions on North Korea’s flag carrier Air Koryo from its airspace, with the last flight occurring in June 2014.
The struggle is not Malaysia’s alone; other Southeast Asian countries are facing similar scrutiny. For example, Singapore, which also had visa-free travel for North Koreans, began imposing visa requirements last year after the latest round of UN sanctions. And ASEAN as a bloc has also issued a series of statements expressing concern about Pyongyang’s behavior. Though these have predictably been both tamer than what some might like and varied in terms of the specific language used in each case, the statements nonetheless reflect the broader trend in the region of growing discontent with Pyongyang’s behavior among most states.
So the next time you read an article waxing lyrical about the special relationship North Korea and Malaysia enjoy or used to enjoy take it with a grain – or a kilogram – of salt. The reality is that the relationship was never as unique or as cozy as it might first appear, even before the recent incident that rocked bilateral ties this month.