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20:28 15 March 2017

FOCUS: Kim Jong Nam murder impacts N. Korea, but unlikely to curb defiance

By Miya Tanaka
KUALA LUMPUR, March 15, Kyodo

In the month since the murder in Malaysia of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has seen its once-cozy ties with Kuala Lumpur sour, while it also faces the growing possibility of a harsher approach from the United States.

North Korea is nevertheless unlikely to be pushed into rethinking its defiant stance as it has been at loggerheads with the international community over various issues since well before the murder, according to an expert on Korean issues.

"North Korea had much to lose (due to the incident)," said Junya Nishino, a professor of Keio University in Japan. "But I don't think the situation surrounding North Korea has drastically changed," he added, noting that the country already lacked the confidence of the international community, while relations with the United States have long been "poor."

Tensions have grown recently in the region, following the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, which Malaysian authorities believe was orchestrated by Pyongyang, as well as North Korea's ballistic missile tests before and after the incident.

As Malaysia began examining the murder case, North Korea stepped up its hostile rhetoric, saying it "cannot trust" the investigation by the Malaysian police and rejecting the findings.

North Korea has maintained that the deceased man is its citizen Kim Chol, the name that appeared in the diplomatic passport he was using. Pyongyang also insists that the man died from a heart attack, instead of the highly toxic nerve agent VX, which the Malaysian police detected on his body.

Amid the standoff, the two countries expelled each other's ambassador. North Korea also said on March 7 it had barred Malaysians from leaving the country until the case is settled in a "fair" manner, and Malaysia responded the same day with a tit-for-tat ban.

After initially accusing North Korea of "effectively holding our citizens hostage," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak later said his country extends hospitality to all countries, but "this doesn't mean anyone can abuse the good treatment offered by Malaysia."

North Korea has diplomatic ties with all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which pursues a policy of not aligning with any major power bloc. Malaysia established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973 when the anti-Western Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in power.

The two countries also opened embassies in each other's capitals in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and later reached an agreement on reciprocal visa-free visits. But the latest spat led Malaysia to also suspend visa-free travel for North Koreans.

Still, Najib has said he has no intention of cutting decades-long relations in a bid to maintain dialogue for proceeding with the probe and ensuring the safety of Malaysian citizens stranded in North Korea due to the travel ban.

Nishino, the head of Keio University's Center for Contemporary Korean Studies, said the fraying bilateral ties could have some impact in the way other ASEAN members engage in North Korea, although they are unlikely to go so far as upending their relations.

"Southeast Asian nations could raise their level of cautiousness about their ties with North Korea, but I don't think they will go as far as shutting North Korea out," he said.

On the economic front, Southeast Asian nations do not seem to have much leverage over North Korea as trading partners, experts said.

While they accounted for some 10 percent in North Korea's overall trade, excluding that with South Korea, in 2007, the figure shrank to 1.4 percent by 2011 amid U.N. sanctions following the North's repeated nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.

Despite slightly recovering later on, trade is again on a declining trend from 2015, according to a report by Lee Chan Woo, a researcher at the Japan Center for Economic Research.

How tough a stance U.S. President Donald Trump takes toward North Korea will be another important factor in considering the impact of Kim's murder, Nishino said.

Washington has said it is reevaluating its policy to counter security threats from North Korea and that "all the options are on the table."

One idea that has been floated is to reinstate the country on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, given the belief that Kim Jong Nam's killing was state-sanctioned terrorism involving the use of an internationally banned chemical weapon.

Nishino said putting North Korea back on the blacklist seems to be "possible," but again it may end up as a "symbolic" measure, as a wide range of economic sanctions are already in place against North Korea.

The United States had designated North Korea on the blacklist from 1988 after its bombing of a South Korean airliner the preceding year killed more than 100 people. It then removed the designation in 2008 as part of efforts to advance stalled multilateral negotiations on disbanding the country's nuclear arsenal.

==Kyodo

  • N. Korean leader's half-brother dies in Malaysia
  • Killing of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia
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