OPINION

[June H. L. Wong] Time for ASEAN to sever ties with Pyongyang

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 20, 2017 - 16:59
  • Updated : Mar 20, 2017 - 16:59
Serves North Korea right. Its supreme leader Kim Jong-un wanted his half brother dead and his lackeys decided to do the dastardly deed in Malaysia.

Analysts have surmised Malaysia was chosen over Macau and Singapore -- places Kim Jong-nam was also known to frequent -- because it posed the least political and economic risk to North Korea.

Pyongyang must have also taken into consideration the relaxed and friendly ties between the two countries where its citizens could go in and out without visas and scrutiny.

So when Kim Jong-nam was poisoned at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 on Feb. 13, Pyongyang most likely expected unsuspecting Malaysia to believe a man named Kim Chol died of a heart attack and, since he had a diplomatic passport, dutifully release the body to the North Korean Embassy. End of story.

As it turned out, even the most well-laid plans can go awry and they certainly did for the North Koreans.

A day later, a Reuters report, quoting US and South Korean government sources, announced to the world Kim Jong-nam’s strange, sudden death and the whole thing unraveled.

After that, Malaysian authorities couldn’t just let it go. By miscalculating badly, Kim Jong-un brought massive world attention on himself and his insanely run nation.

Kim Jong-nam’s assassination by a swipe of nerve poison is so surreal that it is the stuff of Hollywood movies. And it actually is.

In the 2014 comedy, “The Interview,” two American TV talk show hosts, played by Seth Rogan and James Franco, get an exclusive invitation to interview Kim Jong-un. The CIA gets wind of it and enlists the two to assassinate him with a fast-acting poison on a medical plaster to be administered by a handshake.

Pyongyang found the movie so offensive, it threatened “merciless retaliation” against the US. But maybe they also found inspiration in the modus operandi.

Even before Kim Jong-nam’s sensational murder, there was little good news about North Korea.

It has long made a mockery of its official name as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” This is a totalitarian hermit kingdom ruled by three generations of a dynastic family that has gotten more brutal and psychotic with each successor to the “throne.”

The Kims have been obsessed with building military might over feeding their brainwashed subjects. As a result, famine and starvation has been a recurring feature. In the 1980s, the Star newspaper started a North Korean Famine Fund that raised a few million ringgit from sympathetic Malaysians.

Another devastating famine struck from 1993 to 1999 which the United Nations says killed an estimated 2 million people.

The World Food Program was allowed entry in 1995 and never left. Two of the 11 Malaysians, who managed to return from North Korea after Pyongyang’s decision to bar Malaysians from leaving the country, were working for the WFP.

Then there was the horrifying news of how Kim Jong-un executed his uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek and his entire family, including his son Yong-chol who was recalled as the ambassador to Malaysia, in December 2013.

Shocking as it was, since those killings involved North Korean citizens and took place on “home ground,” the rest of the world shrugged off the whole unsavory episode and did nothing.

But North Korea has spilled blood outside its borders. Pyongyang was held responsible for the attempted assassination of South Korean President Chun doo-hwan during his official visit to Yangon, Myanmar, in October 1983 which killed 21 people, including four of his Cabinet ministers, and wounded 46 others.

In November 1987, Pyongyang ordered the bombing of Korea Airlines Flight 858, which was flying from Baghdad to Seoul, in an attempt to destabilize South Korea and disrupt the 1988 Olympic Games.

After each deadly episode, there was fury and condemnation. Yangon suspended diplomatic ties for a while but these were resumed to the extent Myanmar and North Korea were considered “secret allies” by the United States.

Malaysia-North Korea relations may have soured considerably but in all likelihood, bilateral ties would normalize after some time; already media interest in Kim Jong-nam’s murder is winding down. His body will have to be eventually returned to North Korea and Malaysians stuck in Pyongyang will be allowed to leave.

But should we be so forgiving even though there were no Malaysian casualties in this incident?

The assassination should be viewed in relation to what’s currently happening on the Korean Peninsula. For almost two decades since 1999, no diplomacy and international sanctions have been able to derail North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear weapons program.

When Kim Jong-un took over in 2011, he made no bones that his “first, second and third” priorities were to strengthen his military.

By 2016, he was able to test-fire dozens of missiles with possible nuclear warhead capability from mobile launches and submarines.

The latest test on March 6 with four long-range missiles fired into the sea, just 300 kilometers off Japan’s northwest coast, has spooked Tokyo, angered Seoul and even rattled Beijing.

The situation is further complicated by Seoul hurriedly agreeing to the US installing its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in South Korea. That has not gone down well with Beijing and Moscow.

As tensions escalate, putting North Korea and the US and its allies on a collision path, what should Malaysia and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations do?

All 10 members of ASEAN have long had formal diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, some more friendly than others, and the region ranks behind only China in economic importance for North Korea, according to the South China Morning Post, which describes the number of North Korean diplomats in the region as “inordinate.”

Kim Jong-nam’s murder has exposed how Pyongyang had exploited ASEAN’s “relaxed diplomatic policy to conduct clandestine activities in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore,” says the SCMP.

This included North Korean intelligence agents using a front company, Glocom, with its office in the heart of Kuala Lumpur to sell battlefield radio equipment, in violation of UN sanctions.

The world waits to see how pugnacious President Donald Trump will handle North Korea. But Malaysia and the rest of ASEAN must also act and not go back to status quo because North Korea is not an East Asian problem for only the US, China, South Korea and Japan to tackle. As Albert Einstein warned, “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

So ASEAN should stop being so nice and start dismantling Pyongyang’s spy nests in their midst. No amount of economic benefits can justify a bilateral relationship with a paranoid nation led by a murderous megalomaniac.

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By June H. L. Wong

June H. L. Wong is the former group chief editor of the Star Media Group, Malaysia. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region. -- Ed.

(Asia News Network)