North Korea-Malaysia frayed friendship finally breaks

A Malaysian federal court decision earlier this month to approve the extradition of a North Korean citizen accused of money laundering to the United States has been hailed by some as a major coup in Washington’s efforts to uproot Pyongyang’s sanctions-evading activities.

A high court judge rejected the appeal of businessman Mun Chol Myong on March 9, making him the first-ever North Korean citizen extradited to the US to face a criminal trial. At the same time, the ruling has caused a diplomatic rupture, with North Korea ten days later announcing the total severance of its decades-old bilateral ties with Malaysia.

Relations had been uneasy ever since the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, on Malaysian soil. Pyongyang’s decision to end its diplomatic ties with Putrajaya will deepen its isolation in Southeast Asia, a region that has traditionally kept its doors open to North Korea.

Some analysts see the timing of North Korea’s move as aimed at the Joe Biden administration and a sign that Pyongyang intends to shun offers to rekindle talks in favor of more a provocative strategy of resuming missile and nuclear weapons tests.

Mun, who was arrested by Malaysian authorities in 2019, stands accused by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of laundering funds through front companies and facilitating shipments of prohibited luxury goods from Singapore on behalf of the North Korean government, in violation of both US and United Nations sanctions.

The North Korean businessman denied all allegations in his affidavit and described himself as a victim of a “politically motivated” extradition stemming from diplomatic enmity between Pyongyang and Washington. Mun, who is in his 50s, lived in Malaysia for a decade and was taken into FBI custody in Washington on March 20.

All North Korean diplomatic staff and their dependents in Malaysia returned home over the weekend after being given a notice to leave the country within 48 hours, issued after Pyongyang announced in a blustering statement that it would end diplomatic ties with Putrajaya due to the court decision to deport their citizen to the US.

In a statement issued by North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 19, Pyongyang accused Malaysian authorities of “an unpardonable crime” and “subservience” to the US, which it described as “the backstage manipulator and main culprit of this incident” and threatening that it would pay a price for the move.

The ministry also alleged without evidence that Malaysian legal authorities had attended a “drinking party” arranged by the US ambassador, who is not referred to by name, where “huge gratuities” and “free delivery of armaments” were promised in exchange for cooperation with Mun’s extradition.  

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying it deeply regretted North Korea’s decision to sever ties and announced in turn that it would close its embassy in Pyongyang, where operations had already been suspended since 2017. It described the reclusive nation’s actions as “clearly unwarranted, disproportionate and certainly disruptive.”

The ministry stressed that Mun’s extradition was within the country’s legal rights and that Malaysia had considered North Korea to be a close partner since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1973. It said Malaysia had consistently pursued efforts to improve ties, even after “the deplorable assassination of Kim Jong Nam in 2017.”

The North Korean leader’s older half-brother was poisoned in February of that year with a highly lethal VX nerve agent in broad daylight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women, an Indonesian and a Vietnamese, duped into becoming unwitting assassins by North Korean intelligence operatives.

The two women, who believed they were taking part in a prank video shoot, at one point faced murder charges but were later acquitted in 2019 and released upon requests by their respective governments. The audacious killing sparked a tense diplomatic standoff between Pyongyang and Putrajaya, resulting in the expulsion of North Korea’s ambassador.

Malaysia brought charges against four North Korean men who boarded flights out of Kuala Lumpur on the morning of the killing, all of whom remain at large. It permitted other North Koreans suspected of plotting the attack to leave Malaysia as part of a personnel swap. No one has ever been convicted in connection with Kim Jong Nam’s murder.

Kim Jong-nam arrives at Beijing airport in China on February 11, 2007. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters

Prior to 2017, North Korea had enjoyed relatively cordial but discreet diplomatic ties with Malaysia. There were direct flights between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang and a mutual visa-waiver program in place to boost business and tourist travel between the two nations, though the size of legitimate two-way trade remained small.