Tensions between North Korea and Malaysia are beginning to gyrate in a frightening direction this week with name-calling, hostage taking and more. And unfortunately, this puts the United States in a tenuous position.
Liberty Nation has previously reported on the increasingly aggressive actions of North Korea, specifically the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, eldest son of Kim Jong-il and half-brother to Kim Jong-un the Supreme Leader of North Korea. Kim Jong-nam was killed just a few weeks ago, at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have identified the murder weapon as VX nerve agent, a substance on the United Nations’ list of banned weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has denied any involvement in the death, despite that eight North Koreans have been identified by Malaysian police in connection with the murder.
Malaysia has long allowed visa-free travel to North Koreans and permitted NK businesses to operate in Malaysia. Trade between the two countries was $4 million in 2016. While this is a relatively small amount, it does not account for trade through Chinese intermediaries or illicit trade. Malaysia has recently come under scrutiny for North Korean front companies operating an arms network within the country, effectively skirting around UN sanctions. Tanchon and KOMID — two sanctioned North Korean arms firms — apparently held accounts in Malaysia. The relatively strong ties between the two countries, according to Reuters, has seemed to unravel.
Both countries are now locked in a diplomatic tit-for-tat. Just two days ago, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called Ambassador Kang Chol of North Korea “diplomatically rude” for claims made about the Malaysian government. Meanwhile, Ambassador Kang accused the Malaysian government’s investigation on Kim Jong-un’s death as untrustworthy and asserted that Prime Minister Najib’s government was in collusion with the United States and others to target North Korea, according to Reuters.
Ambassador Kang was declared persona non-grata and given forty-eight hours to leave the country. Soon after, North Korea responded by expelling Malaysia’s ambassador to Pyongyang. This move was largely symbolic, as Malaysia had recalled their ambassador on 20 February 2017, a week after the killing of Mr. Kim.
Diplomatic relations have since worsened between the two countries, and the developing situation appears worrisome. North Korea has banned Malaysians from leaving North Korea, sparking a similar move by the Malaysian government. Currently, eleven Malaysians, including embassy staff and family, remain as diplomatic hostages within North Korea. Reuters reports that Prime Minister Najib has called for an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. “This abhorrent act,” Prime Minister Najib made in a statement on Tuesday, “essentially holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.” Prime Minister Najib has since barred all North Korean citizens from leaving Malaysia until he was “assured of the safety and security of all Malaysians in North Korea.”
Malaysian authorities have also sealed off the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur to determine the number of officials inside. Three men, currently hiding in the North Korean embassy, are wanted for questioning in regards to the Kim Jong-nam murder.
In addition to North Korea’s diplomatic battles with Malaysia, the rogue nation also faces additional UN sanctions after the firing of four missiles into the Sea of Japan on Monday, 6 March. The launches, which are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, was in response to the joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which began in early March. The operation, called Foal Eagle, is an annual exercise between the two countries to measure the defensive capabilities against a potential North Korean attack.
North Korea, who opposes the drills each year, has stated that the drills model a “pre-emptive nuclear attack,” Reuters reports. And NK state media has stated that leader Kim Jong-un personally supervised the missile launches, delivering a typically grandiose statement. “In the hearts of artillerymen…there was burning desire to mercilessly retaliate against the warmongers going ahead with their joint war exercises.” Furthermore, North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Choi described the military drills as “a major cause of escalation of tension that might turn into actual war” at the U.N. backed Conference on Disarmament.
U.S. Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood rebuked the North Korean diplomat, stating “It should be very clear to the DPRK that it is a pariah, it is an outlier, it is in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that the countries represented in this room are not going to stand by and just let the DPRK violate international law.”
U.S. Pacific Command, according to Reuters, has begun deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system to South Korea. While the United States and South Korea describe the system as defensive in nature, China has taken umbrage with the strategic asset now moving into the area, arguing that their country is the real target of the system’s long-range radar. As such China has sworn to take steps to protect its interests in the region.
The destabilization of Malaysian/North Korean relations poses a significant threat that the U.S. would be wise not to take lightly. In years past, North Korea was perfectly content to rattle its sabers and fire a few missiles into the ocean whenever the United States or South Korea conducted drills. North Korea would conduct a missile test, receive U.N. sanctions, skirt around them through Chinese and Malaysian partnerships, and continue about its day. Now, however, North Korea is losing the friendship it held with Malaysia and taking away China’s diplomatic options through continued provocations against South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
Simply put, North Korea is running out of room to maneuver around the multitude of U.N. sanctions it currently faces. The Korean peninsula is already fraught with political and military tension, and the next steps should be calculated ones. The U.S. must be wary of backing an animal into a corner, especially when it has missiles for teeth.