11 April 2019
By Brian Bridges
AS one high-profile trial opens in Malaysia, another quietly fades away. The long-running murder trial of two suspects in the Kim Jong-Nam assassination is coming to an end.
One defendant, Indonesian Siti Aisyah, was released a month ago with the charges against her dropped, while the second defendant, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of causing “hurt with a dangerous weapon” and is expected to be freed next month.
To the frustration of the Malaysian police and many members of the public, no-one is going to be found guilty of murdering Jong-nam at klia2 in February 2017. Four North Korean suspects, accused of being the planners of this attack, fled Malaysia on the day of the attack and despite an Interpol alert out for them they are very unlikely to be seen again outside North Korea.
North Korean officials, however, have continued to argue that they had no hand in this event. Although Malaysia decided not to sever diplomatic relations, its embassy in Pyongyang was closed down.
Proving that the two women had the intention to murder Jong-nam seems to have been the sticking point. But clearly, there has also been political, or at least diplomatic intervention. Any government can be sympathetic to the fate of its citizens who are incarcerated overseas, and pleading for their release, or at least rendition, back to their native country is not uncommon. But the Indonesian case saw high-level lobbying. With a crucial presidential election coming up, Indonesian President Joko Widodo is perhaps keen to secure a diplomatic “victory” — Siti Aisyah’s freedom — for domestic political reasons. Apart from Malaysian fellow-feeling for a Muslim-majority neighbour and Asean partner, the fact that Malaysia is beholden to Indonesia to look after the shuttered Malaysian embassy building in Pyongyang may also have been a factor.
Vietnam in turn increased its own lobbying efforts after Siti Aisyah’s release until the reduced charges against Doan provided a way out.
But much has changed in both Malaysia and on the Korean peninsula since early 2017. Last May an historic change of government in Malaysia brought Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad back to the premiership. He came into office convinced that Malaysia should be “a friend to all”. Soon after, he raised the question of reopening the embassy in Pyongyang. Despite repeating his intention from time to time, two obstacles have been in the way.
First, the prolonged trial of the two suspects, accused of murdering Jong-nam. Even if their North Korean handlers could not be found, a verdict in their trial was still needed to help put that problem to bed. Second, North Korea needed either to take a significant step itself to rectify the bilateral relationship or, more broadly, address global concerns about its nuclear and missile developments.
After the initial diplomatic spat had subsided, North Korea has studiously avoided any provocative media comments about Malaysia. Yet, it has not seemed in the mood to offer any kind of apology, trying instead to maintain plausible deniability. North Korea’s foreign minister, when attending the Asean Regional Forum last summer, carefully avoided meeting the new Malaysian foreign minister even though he met with almost every other Asean counterpart.
The rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and the war of words between the United States and North Korea in the second half of 2017 fortunately did switch to dialogue and summitry in 2018. As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un embarked on summits with South Korean, Chinese and even US presidents, it did seem as if a more favourable environment for Dr Mahathir to push his idea of reopening the embassy was being created.
However, the dilemma for Malaysian policymakers has been that while the various summits have produced a better understanding of Jong-un’s character and policy objectives, they have not yet produced concrete progress in denuclearisation. With international sanctions closely tied to denuclearisation, it is difficult for Malaysia to take unilateral action.
When President Moon Jae-in visited Malaysia a few weeks ago, he and Dr Mahathir focused on ways to enhance bilateral Malaysia-South Korea relations, but they also discussed Moon’s own dream of improving inter-Korean relations. From a South Korean perspective, reopening the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang would fit expectations of improving the Korean peninsula environment.
But timing is everything. If US-North Korean negotiations were to resume and some progress made in setting up at least a step-by-step deal for some denuclearisation measures in return for some sanctions relief, then a Malaysian move would be much easier.
In November, Moon will host a major summit, celebrating 30 years of South Korea-Asean dialogue. In 2000, then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung hosted a major Europe-Asia summit soon after he had initiated the first ever inter-Korean summit.
On the flight out to Seoul, British prime minister Tony Blair and his advisers discussed what they could do to show support for the host’s efforts for peace on the Korean peninsula. They decided on Britain establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea for the first time.
Perhaps, therefore, Dr Mahathir can bring a “present” — reopening the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang — to Moon’s summit. But before that can happen, North Korea should make the first move.
The writer, who submitted this article to the New Straits Times, is a Fellow at Centre for Asian Pacific Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and resides in Melaka