On Thursday, North Korea released two UN workers who had been among 11 Malaysians barred from leaving the country. Diplomatic tensions escalated on Tuesday when North Korea placed a travel ban on Malaysians, prompting Malaysia to enact a reciprocal ban. Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, accused North Korea of “effectively holding our citizens hostage” and condemned the travel ban as an “abhorrent act” that was in “total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.” The United Nations called for the two nations to resolve their conflict through “established diplomatic practice.”
While nine Malaysians remain in North Korea and the ban does not appear likely to end soon, the release of the two workers, who were employees of the World Food Programme (WFP), signals an improvement in the relationship between the two countries. Razak wrote via Facebook that he had spoken to Encik Mohd Nor Azrin, counsellor at the Malaysian Embassy in North Korea. “Even though they are restrained from leaving the country,” he noted, “the North Korean government have assured us of their safety and they are free to go about their daily lives.”
This rapid escalation of conflict follows the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was killed with a potent nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13. The right to claim his body sparked a conflict between the two countries that had been simmering two weeks prior to the tit-for-tat action.
North Korea’s actions could be construed as a pre-emptive strike against Malaysia. North Korea may have been expecting Malaysia to issue a travel ban on the most likely suspects in the murder investigation, namely North Korean diplomats, in order to carry out the police investigation. The evasive nation may have been motivated by the desire to deflect attention away from their potential culpability in Kim Jong Nam’s assassination.
The incident is a continuation of a broader pattern of North Korean diplomatic aggression. The conflict does not, however, pose a substantial threat to international security. North Korea and Malaysia have previously enjoyed friendly relations and currently maintain a mutually beneficial economic relationship. North Korea buys oil, rubber, and other commodities from Malaysia. Malaysia, in turn, imports steel, iron, electronics, and chemicals. According to Malaysian statistics, trade between the two countries amounted to RM23 million ($5.2 million) in 2015. Looking to the future, North Korea is eager to boost its economic ties to Malaysia: “North Korea is now looking at using Malaysia as a gateway to Southeast Asian markets,” the head of Malaysia’s trade development agency told the Star, a daily newspaper.
The tit-for-tat action could be perceived as a worrying omen of political instability to come, and police investigations will continue to place North Korea on the defensive and consequently on the offensive. However, North Korea is invested in maintaining a positive relationship with its economically epitomized by the 300 North Koreans currently working in Malaysia. The release of two diplomats can be taken as a diplomatic gesture, signalling that Malaysia is not about to become another enemy to one of the most mysterious and aggressive nations in the world.
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