A member of the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's ruling coalition, holds a placard at a protest at the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
A Malaysian holds a placard at a protest at the North Korea embassy following the murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

SINGAPORE – 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.

A general view of North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 19, 2021. North Korea’s regime vowed to cut diplomatic ties with Malaysia to protest after a court ruled that a North Korean citizen named Mun Chol Myong to be extradited to the United States to face money laundering charges. Photo: EyePress Newswire via AFP/FL Wong

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 in a February 11, 2007 file photo. Photo: Kyodo via AFP

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.

Malaysia once hosted hundreds of North Korean workers, who were deported following the cloak-and-dagger airport killing. Pyongyang had reportedly used its presence in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries to set up conduits for the repatriation of foreign currency and pursue espionage, arms exports and illicit financial activities, analysts and experts say.

“One would have to think doubly hard as to what Malaysia, a major global trading and manufacturing hub, stands to lose from breaking formal ties with North Korea, a reclusive pariah state shunned by most of the mainstream of the international community,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“As Malaysia has long been permissive of many of North Korea’s various activities in and via Malaysia in the generous spirit of solidarity among developing, supposedly non-aligned countries, North Korea stands to lose another one of its dwindling number of windows to the rest of the world,” the analyst added.

With one less friendly nation in its corner, Oh said North Korea’s move was ultimately “self-defeating” given that Malaysia and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries maintain a consensus position that Pyongyang should not be diplomatically isolated and are supportive of diplomatic engagement.

ASEAN members have in the past facilitated negotiations between North Korea and the US, with Malaysia hosting talks between Pyongyang and the Bill Clinton administration in 1995. More recently Singapore and Vietnam provided a neutral ground for direct negotiations between Kim Jong Un and then-US president Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.

Pyongyang’s decision to end relations with Putrajaya has puzzled many observers given that loss of access to Malaysia, which provided a gateway to Southeast Asian markets, puts North Korea at a relative disadvantage. But Malaysia’s precedent-setting extradition apparently served to rule out the country as a base for further North Korean activity.

It remains to be seen whether other ASEAN members will leverage Malaysia’s example to similarly curtail alleged North Korean illicit activities within their own jurisdictions. Pyongyang is widely seen as having deftly exploited legal and institutional weaknesses in Southeast Asian nations to evade harsh economic sanctions.

North Korea’s severance of ties with Malaysia is also seen by some as a test to gauge the reaction of the White House, which is now reviewing its North Korea policy. Mun’s appeal and extradition preceded a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to South Korea earlier this month.

Kim Jong Un in action during January’s Korean Workers’ Party Congress. Photo: KCNA/AFP

Washington has said it has attempted to establish a diplomatic channel with Pyongyang since February but so far to no avail. North Korea has since confirmed that it ignored the request for new talks on denuclearization. It has ruled out any engagement with the US unless it ceases what it views as a hostile policy.

A top US military official, Air Force General Glen VanHerck, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that North Korea could begin flight testing an improved design for its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) after a hiatus of more than three years. He also said authorities had no specific intelligence about an imminent launch.

Fauziah Mohd Taib, a retired Malaysian diplomat who the Clinton administration approached to help facilitate talks with North Korea in the late 1990s, lamented in an opinion piece published on Monday in the New Straits Times broadsheet that the rupturing of bilateral ties represented a step backward for Malaysia’s broad diplomacy.

“In diplomacy, we must always keep our doors open because we never know when we need friends. It could be a vote that matters at the United Nations or a position that we hope to get support from,” said Fauziah, who served as deputy chief of mission at the Malaysian embassy in Washington from 1998 to 2004.

“By hosting their embassy in Kuala Lumpur, we were able to show their diplomats the kind of society we live in and how despite the diversity, Malaysians are able to live together peacefully and benefit from a liberal and open economy, which the North Koreans cannot enjoy,” she added, calling for efforts to resume ties with the isolated communist state.