On Monday, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed to parliament that Malaysia was mulling further restrictions in its ties with North Korea as part of an ongoing review of bilateral ties. The premier’s assessment, consistent with the words and actions we have seen by the Southeast Asian state in recent months, suggests that we are more likely than not to see a continued pattern of limited and calibrated restrictions of its links to Pyongyang.
As I have noted before, though the history of Malaysia-North Korea relations is often poorly understood, they have been under strain in recent months due to a string of incidents, including Pyongyang’s battery of missile and nuclear tests; the diplomatic row following the killing of Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in February; and the growing scrutiny by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on Southeast Asian states’ links with North Korea (See: “The Myth of a Malaysia-North Korea Special Relationship”).
Malaysia has enacted a series of limited and calibrated restrictions in response, with only some of them publicized and at times later than they have been actually implemented. This has already been seen in several realms, including cutbacks on workers, select businesses, flights, and a travel ban announced in September (See: “What’s Behind Malaysia’s North Korea Travel Ban?”). And as I wrote recently in an assessment of the future outlook for ties, though a closer look often shows that these restrictions are not nearly as severe as portrayed, we were also likely to see more restrictions of this ilk and tougher versions of existing ones being unveiled in the coming months (See: “What’s Next for Malaysia-North Korea Relations?”).
This week, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed in a response to a parliamentary inquiry that this would indeed be the case. As would be expected, Najib framed his response diplomatically, saying that Malaysia was undertaking a broader review of its ties with North Korea “including diplomatic, political, and economic relations” rather than openly declaring that the Southeast Asian state was moving toward completely severing its ties with Pyongyang.
But the Malaysian premier also was clear about the list of restrictions that would likely be instituted. Unsurprisingly, one of these, which had also been mentioned previously by Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, was the closing of the embassy in Pyongyang and handling North Korean affairs via the embassy in Beijing.
Najib predictably did not provide much more in the way of specifics of future restrictions Malaysia is mulling, reflecting the country’s desire to tread cautiously on the North Korea issue following escalatory rhetoric that led to the diplomatic row earlier this year. That is understandable, especially given that Malaysia’s general election is fast approaching. But the premier’s take on the state of bilateral ties, consistent with the sorts of words and actions we have seen in the past few months, suggests that we are more likely than not to see this pattern of restrictions continue.