In a peculiar twist last week, North Korea – formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – announced that it was severing its diplomatic relations with Malaysia, after Malaysia’s highest court approved the extradition of a North Korean businessman, Mun Chol Myong, to the U.S. to face charges of money laundering. Mun is wanted for laundering funds in violation of United Nations and U.S. sanctions. The Malaysian government in turn expelled North Korean diplomats and severed diplomatic relations in accordance with Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961.
Even before this latest episode, Malaysia’s relationship with North Korea was frosty, due to the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korea’s Premier Kim Jong Un’s estranged brother, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017. Malaysia suspected North Korea had a role in the assassination and subsequently suspended the DPRK’s diplomatic mission.
Prior to that ties between Malaysia and North Korea were relatively benign. Malaysia served as one of key hubs of economic engagement in Southeast Asia, from which North Korea conducted trade with the region, and functioned as an avenue for its engagement with the region via the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). North Korea is also a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an inclusive multilateral security platform.
Indeed, the DPRK’s ties with Malaysia had mostly served North Korea’s strategic interests well during the two nations’ 48 years of bilateral ties. The U.S. and South Korea have used this geopolitical nexus to communicate with North Korea on security issues and humanitarian aid indirectly via Malaysia and at the sidelines of ARF meetings. South Korea’s own New Southern Policy (NSP), aiming for closer geo-economic cooperation with ASEAN, also has acted as a veiled conduit to the DPRK, hoping that ASEAN will serve as an informal strategic bridge connecting with North Korea.
So why then did North Korea decide to sever its diplomatic relations with an important albeit a cautious strategic player in Southeast Asia?
The main reason lies further away from the Southeast Asia region and closer to North Korea itself. The Biden administration’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his first overseas trip (together with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin) visited Japan on March 15 and South Korea on March 18 to rally support against nuclear-armed North Korea and China. In response to the visits, Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, warned the U.S. by stating, “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
It is no coincidence that North Korea cut off its diplomatic relations with Malaysia a day after Blinken’s visit to Seoul. North Korea alleged that Malaysia was collaborating with the U.S. in extraditing the businessman Mun Chol Myong and vowed to retaliate against Malaysia. This was a subtle signal aimed at Washington, and a warning that North Korea is willing to respond to further U.S. actions against its perceived interests by threatening U.S. security partners.
This is true even though the move does not make nominal strategic sense, given North Korea needed Malaysia’s geopolitical reach and access to the ARF for the advancement of its own interests, and that it now stands to lose what residual recognition it enjoyed in the region.
The plausible strategic logic behind North Korea’s latest action resides in the assumption of its nuclear weapons strategy, that its leader thinks and acts irrationally. The main assumption of nuclear deterrence strategy is precisely the opposite: that leaders think and act rationally pertaining the use of nuclear weapons and will avoid first use as the consequences of an enemy’s counterstrike will have devastating results. This rational logic deters any nuclear state from conducting nuclear strikes. North Korea’s irrational behavior, on the other hand, is intended as a strong signal to other powers that the commonly assumed nuclear deterrence strategic thinking may not apply in the case of the DPRK.