Malaysia will play waiting game in feud with N Korea

5:22 pm on 11 March 2017

Analysis - North Korea enjoys membership of a small but uncomfortable club with regard to those who annoy the powers that be - instead of throwing you out, they force you to stay.

Malaysian activists show the peace sign outside the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Friday during a gathering urging Malaysia and North Korea to come up with a peaceful solution to the current diplomatic row.

Malaysian activists show the peace sign outside the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Friday during a gathering urging Malaysia and North Korea to come up with a peaceful solution to the current diplomatic row. Photo: AFP

Such is the current predicament of nine members of the Malaysian civil service, trapped in Pyongyang in a strange game being played out in diplomatic slow motion.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the police watch the North Korean Embassy day and night and have barred North Koreans in the country from leaving.

At the heart of the dispute is the death last month of the estranged brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Nam, seemingly executed with a banned nerve agent in the crowded arrivals hall at Kuala Lumpur Airport, is still a player in the saga, with the Malaysians refusing to release his body, and possibly on a nationwide hunt for his son in order to conduct a DNA test to confirm Mr Kim's identity.

Kim Jong Nam

The estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been murdered in Malaysia Photo: AFP

"Abhorrent" was the description given to Pyongyang's unlawful detention of Malaysians by their Prime Minister Najib Razak. "They are effectively holding our citizens hostage" he said.

In Parliament, the Prime Minister confirmed negotiations were under way.

Najib Razakduring a budget review session in Putrajaya on January 28, 2016.

Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak Photo: AFP

"It's a sensitive matter", he told MPs "sometimes it's better done in secrecy to achieve the desired results."

On 6 March, Malaysia expelled North Korean ambassador Kang Chol.

North Korea's ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol has been ordered to leave the country after he said Malaysia's handling of an investigation into Kim Jong-nam's death could not be trusted.

North Korea's ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol has been ordered to leave the country after he said Malaysia's handling of an investigation into Kim Jong-nam's death could not be trusted. Photo: AFP

On the same day North Korea fired a salvo of medium-range rockets into the Sea of Japan, sending a belligerent message not only to Malaysia but also to South Korea and the United States, who have been conducting military exercises off the coast and are preparing to install a new air defence missile system on South Korean soil.

Malaysia has a remarkably open border, inviting visitors from across the region, and thousands of North Korean labourers have been employed in Malaysia.

But now all that appears to have changed, with Malaysia taking an unusually hard-line approach while not formally severing diplomatic ties and keeping its Pyongyang embassy open for the moment.

"It's all been brought on by the antagonistic way the North Koreans questioned the investigation into Kim Jong-Nam's death" says Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia's director of foreign policy and security studies, Elina Noor.

"Malaysia is extremely concerned about the safety of our officials" she says, "its top priority to get this situation sorted out."

Ms Noor, who was in Wellington this week, says Malaysia may want a fast resolution to the situation faced by its nationals in Pyongyang, but it can be patient when it comes to the North Koreans it suspects are in that country's embassy in KL and know a great deal about the death of Mr Kim.

Malaysian National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar has said police would not raid the embassy. "We will wait, and if it takes five years, we will wait," he said.

Malaysian National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar

Malaysian National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar Photo: AFP

"I'm hoping this can be a positive outcome", says Ms Noor. "And we're going to use some traditional methods of dialogue ... If it doesn't work out then we perhaps have some more assertive options we could look at"

Asserting its options may well be what Pyongyang feels it's currently doing: standing up to the new administration in Washington, flexing what muscle it has against its southern neighbour, and continuing to irritate its Chinese big brother next door.

While Malaysia seeks a solution to the mutual hostage quandary, the US and South Korea face off with a seemingly emboldened Kim Jong Un and his desire to send a message across the Pacific regarding his own military capacities - and his concern about the THAAD missile system being installed in South Korea.

Of course, the North Koreans know an actual military confrontation would be end of the Kim dynasty, and the end of their country as an entity.

But with the past US-led strategy against the country failing to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang, what's needed now is the understanding that North Korea is very unlikely to use a nuclear weapon in a pre-emptive way, but very likely to remain convinced of its right to develop and own them.

US President Donald Trump meets with parents and teachers at Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida.

US President Donald Trump meets with parents and teachers at Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida. Photo: AFP

Diplomacy is the primary weapon the West has against the small arsenal of nuclear weapons held by the North Koreans, and its goal must be for Pyongyang to cease the testing of nuclear weapons, and the missiles that could carry them.

Add to that a ban on the export of any nuclear technology or material that could fall into radical hands.

At a news conference this week, Chinese foreign minister Wang Li said it was time to "flash the red light and apply the brakes" when it comes to North Korea.

It's a message best heeded in Washington, and just maybe the Malaysians will be the country to show how it's done.