Bilateral relations between North Korea and Malaysia share similar characteristics to other ties between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korean (DPRK) and its friends in the Global South based on their shared ideology of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. Despite the recent rupture, Malaysia’s previously close relationship with North Korea could yet provide hope of reconciliation, as did the North’s up and down relationship with Burma/Myanmar over the years. Humanitarian cooperation between the DPRK, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and individual Southeast Asian countries could provide more space for broader diplomatic engagement.
Malaysia’s “Special Relationship” With North Korea
Malaysia established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973 as part of a concerted push to build links with China and other socialist states; this relationship was strengthened through the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) throughout the rest of the decade. Malaysia-DPRK relations were most actively cultivated on the basis of the anti-imperialist stance of both Mahathir Mohamad and Kim Il Sung. After Mahathir became prime minister in 1981, relations developed quickly with exchanges of ministerial visits and aspirations to promote mutual economic development and peace on the peninsula.
In 2002, a series of bilateral agreements covering cultural exchanges, science and technology cooperation and aviation were signed not long before Mahathir announced his intent to step down as the longest-serving prime minister in the country. Mahathir’s successors continuously supported inter-Korean peace initiatives. With the aviation deal, Kuala Lumpur became one of only two Asian capitals outside of China that serviced direct flights to Pyongyang. Crucially, a visa-waiver arrangement also facilitated a flourishing of people-to-people tourism, including allowing North Koreans to visit Malaysia for work, study, networking with local academic institutions and think tanks exchanges. The Malaysian Medical Relief Society (MERCY) delivered several humanitarian aid shipments to North Korea after the Ryongchon train tragedy in 2004 and provided flood relief thereafter.
After Najib Razak became prime minister in 2009, the Malaysian government abandoned the long-held tradition of “equidistant diplomacy” between the two Koreas in favor of the development of economic relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK). The majority of Southeast Asian countries have had significant trade and investment relations with South Korea since the 2010s, especially in comparison to limited trade with North Korea. However, from North Korea’s perspective, the Najib government made a grave political mistake by supporting South Korea’s passage of the 2016 North Korean Human Rights Act, followed by the motion in the United Nations (UN) on North Korean human rights. North Korea felt betrayed by Malaysia’s decision to upset it on one of the most sensitive issues touching the country.
Many observers find it bizarre that Malaysia chose not to cut ties with North Korea even after the Kim Jong Nam assassination and the diplomatic crisis that ensued between the two sides in February-March 2017. Najib was upset by this action, even though no Malaysians were injured or involved. While his government did not break relations, visa-free access was revoked, almost all North Korean work visas were not renewed, and trade declined to nearly nothing.
In 2018, Mahathir returned to the premiership as the head of a new People’s Coalition (Pakatan Harapan or PH) government. Given his belief that links with North Korea should be preserved and that Najib had committed a serious mistake, Mahathir received North Korean delegations in Kuala Lumpur and announced the planned reopening of the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang while attending the NAM Summit in Azerbaijan. But before any progress could be made, the PH coalition lost power, and the new coalition government was too preoccupied with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic to focus on the future of Malaysia-DPRK relations.
However, one hangover from the previous government was the pending US request for extraditing a North Korean national who had been arrested in 2019 on charges of money laundering. The Malaysian government came under US pressure to extradite Mun Chol Myong as well as pressure from North Korea to block the process. When Malaysia insisted on following legal principles, Mun’s expulsion prompted North Korea to sever relations with Malaysia in March, in large part to discourage other states from following the Malaysian example of agreeing to US extradition requests; Pyongyang also wanted to send a message to Washington that it would not stand idly by in response to this latest manifestation of US “hostile policy.”
North Korea’s relations with Southeast Asian states have suffered their ups and downs over the decades, and nothing better illustrates this experience than the North’s relationship with Burma/Myanmar. Burma had established relatively friendly relations with North Korea in the early 1960s, mainly because its fervent anti-colonialism and developing belief in non-alignment made it a good fit with North Korea’s ideological outlook. But in 1983, Burma broke off diplomatic relations with North Korea after it attempted to assassinate visiting South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan.
It took two decades for Myanmar to reconcile with North Korea. The first notable sign was the secret resumption of military ties, followed by increasingly visible arms sales between the two countries by the mid-2000s. But it was not until 2007 (24 years after the Rangoon bombing) that the North Koreans were invited to reestablish an embassy in Yangon. The rekindled friendship soon came under pressure from the Bush administration’s financial warfare against the North and decisions by Southeast Asian countries to join the US Proliferation Security Initiative. As a result, exchanges from the DPRK to Myanmar were frequently disrupted by ship inspections to halt potential arms transfers.
The ASEAN Dimension
These bilateral relationships do not operate in a vacuum, especially in Southeast Asia, where ASEAN is so important institutionally. ASEAN has kept a low profile on North Korea and ROK-DPRK relations. Despite all the tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons development in recent years, the members of ASEAN have generally tried to balance relations with the two Koreas, even if economic and cultural links with the South far outstripped those with the North, while hoping to play a role in bringing about some reconciliation on the peninsula.
The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was established in 1994 in part due to the urgency to discuss the first North Korean nuclear crisis; South Korea had joined the ARF from the beginning, but North Korea was only admitted in 2000. To date, the ARF remains the only regional multilateral mechanism that North Korea is a part of, albeit with dwindling levels of representation in recent years. Nonetheless, the North signed the important Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008, sent an ambassador to ASEAN in 2011, and has had hopes of eventually becoming a dialogue partner.
During the Six Party Talks era in the 2000s, ASEAN member states like Malaysia and Singapore did host several secret negotiation meetings between the United States and North Korea as well as ROK-DPRK meetings when representatives were attending the ARF or other ASEAN-related events. Though not all meetings produced tangible results, they kept communications open to all sides, facilitated by the Southeast Asian states. ASEAN has been particularly proud that both Singapore and Hanoi were chosen as sites for US-DPRK summits. Therefore, despite Malaysia’s difficulties in its bilateral relationship with North Korea in the past four years, ASEAN’s role has been to continue exchanges with lower-level North Korean officials at the ARF, while still receiving high-level delegation visits from DPRK to ASEAN.
Beyond the Stalemate?
Malaysia has long prided itself on its ability to connect with governments of all types. But now, Malaysian policymakers are faced with the prospect of a potentially lengthy hiatus in diplomatic relations with the North. Unlike Myanmar, Malaysia does not have military linkages with North Korea, so other dimensions of the relationship will need to be utilized to restore normalcy. Prior to the North Korean announcement to break off ties, an attempt to restore the Track II and educational exchanges was underway, and that approach could be tried again.
One NGO from Singapore, Choson Exchange, has successfully concluded two online lecture series involving citizens in North Korea, with personnel based in Singapore and elsewhere participating in the unprecedented online exchanges with North Korean counterparts on service innovation for tourism. In the Malaysian case, donors seem willing to support humanitarian aid to North Korea, and MERCY Malaysia would be ready to return once North Korea reopens its borders.
Four out of 10 ASEAN member states still maintain their embassies in Pyongyang, and the ASEAN Committee in Pyongyang has a good record of running programs and activities across all of North Korea. Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam still maintain their presence in the diplomatic compound even as many foreign missions and international organizations are reducing or even terminating their presence in Pyongyang. It is hoped that cooperation via COVID-19 medical assistance and online education exchanges will provide multiple tracks for Southeast Asian engagement, while carefully observing international obligations on sanctions and nonproliferation principles.
Whether the pandemic will open new opportunities for Southeast Asia-DPRK interactions may well depend on the level of the North’s trust in the ongoing online engagement with ASEAN countries while its diplomats and missions overseas remain disconnected and unable to return to the country. ASEAN’s nonconfrontational diplomacy and its desire to contribute to regional humanitarian assistance programs mean that, since the food shortages and uncertain health conditions within North Korea could yet contribute to new humanitarian crises, Southeast Asia could become one potential lifeline.
This research was made possible through generous support from the Korea Foundation.
Benjamin R. Young, Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World (California: Stanford University Press, 2021).
The list of communist countries that Malaysia established relations with, in chronological order, were: the Soviet Union (1967), East Germany (1970), North Vietnam (1971), North Korea (1973) and China (1974).
Mahathir met Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang while he was visiting as the Malaysian deputy prime minister and trade minister in 1979, the year when the two states signed their first trade agreement.
The other Asian capital being Bangkok, Thailand, which ceased Air Koryo’s flight operation by 2013, making Kuala Lumpur the only capital outside of China that had direct flights with North Korea. See Bernama, “North Korea’s Air Koryo makes maiden landing at KLIA,” via The Star (Malaysia), April 20, 2011, https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2011/04/20/north-koreas-air-koryo-makes-maiden-landing-at-klia.
Unfortunately, this also corresponded with the period when such free-flow exchanges inadvertently created opportunities for more illicit activities that enabled the North Korean state-owned corporations to earn hard currencies from the otherwise legally registered companies based in Malaysia. For example, the most notable case was GLOCOM, a North Korean defense and arms sales company; also, Joshua Stanton’s concern in 2013 that Malaysia might well be the “next Banco Delta Asia” of North Korea, serving as financial intermediaries for North Korea and other states. See Joshua Stanton, “Is the next Banco Delta Asia in Malaysia?” One Free Korea, October 28, 2013, https://freekorea.us/2013/10/is-the-next-banco-delta-asia-in-malaysia/; and James Pearson and Rozanna Latiff, “North Korea spy agency runs arms operation out of Malaysia, U.N. says,” Reuters, February 26, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-malaysia-arms-insight/north-korea-spy-agency-runs-arms-operation-out-of-malaysia-u-n-says-idUSKBN1650YE.
The position of ambassador-at-large for North Korean human rights was created by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs following the enactment of the North Korean Human Rights Act in March 2016. Professor Lee Jung-Hoon, the inaugural ambassador-at-large for North Korean human rights, visited Kuala Lumpur on several occasions in 2016 to advocate for Malaysia’s support for a UN Security Council meeting on human rights violations by North Korea. To one of the authors’ surprise at the time, Malaysia supported South Korea’s position during the voting. See “U.N. Security Council discusses N.K. human rights issue for three consecutive years,” Yonhap, December 9, 2016, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20161210000600315.
One factor in Najib’s thinking may have been that it was his own father, Abdul Razak, then prime minister, who had established diplomatic relations in 1973. Following the Malay culture’s patronym system, people are usually addressed by their given name, not by their last name (father’s name), hence “Najib.”
Mahathir spoke positively of North Korea in various interviews, for example: “We should take it as genuine, and try to establish a good relation including a trade relation with North Korea.” See Leo Byrne, “Malaysia to reopen embassy in North Korea: PM,” NK News, June 12, 2018, https://www.nknews.org/2018/06/malaysia-will-reopen-embassy-in-north-korea-pm/; Paul Gabriel, “Ties with North Korea warming up,” The Star (Malaysia), November 16, 2019, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/11/16/ties-with-north-korea-warming-up.
“Unfairness Would Not Escape from Stern Judgment of Fairness: DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” KCNA via KCNA Watch, March 19, 2021, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1616104939-411756163/unfairness-would-not-escape-from-stern-judgment-of-fairness-dprk-ministry-of-foreign-affairs/?t=1623881189210.
Er-Win Tan and Brian Bridges, “Revisiting the 1983 Rangoon Bombing: Covert Action in North Korea’s Foreign Relations,” Korea Observer 50, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 81-103.
See Juan C. Zarate’s Treasury War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare for the details of the US Department of Treasury’s operation, including slapping sanctions on a Malaysian bank (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 303, and Sam Kim, “N. Korea using Malaysian bank to deal weapons with Myanmar: source,” Yonhap, July 4, 2009, http://web.archive.org/web/20160701201344/english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2009/07/04/78/0301000000AEN20090704000600315F.HTML, accessed November 13, 2011.
Singapore, the first among the Southeast Asian countries to sign on to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), did so in 2003.
The then-ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan extended the invitation to DPRK in 1999, with the hope to integrate and socialize the DPRK. North Korea accepted the invitation and formally joined the ASEAN-based mechanism and dialogue in 2000.
DPRK delegations to the ARF had been led by vice minister of Foreign Affairs or lower in the pre-pandemic years, but currently are only represented by the DPRK ambassador to whichever ASEAN country hosts the virtual ASEAN meetings.
Author conversation with a MERCY Malaysia’s board member, June 30, 2021.
See the Embassy of Malaysia in Pyongyang’s e-newsletter January-June 2016; the Embassy of Indonesia in Pyongyang’s Report on ASEAN Committee in Pyongyang activities to ASEAN Secretariat May-October 2017; and the Vietnam Chairmanship’s Report on the ASEAN Committee in Pyongyang (ACP) activities for the period of September-December 2018. All are available at www.asean.org.
Cambodian diplomat(s) had left Pyongyang as they were not seen in recent ASEAN Committee in Pyongyang meetings hosted at the Indonesian Embassy in Pyongyang.
According to the ARF Strategic Guidance for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR, 2010), all ARF members, including North Korea, have access to the cooperative framework, including civil-military coordination and cooperation, military involvement in HADR, and dissemination of medical supplies, services and relief assistance. The AHA Centre can work closer with United Nations Office for the Coordination Affairs (UNOCHA), which used to have an office in Pyongyang. The ARF is the bridge to link the coordination and implementation of relief actions between the two offices with the potential expansion of the geographical scope of ARF HADR operations from the ASEAN region to Northeast Asia.