Kim Jong-nam’s death is straining Malaysia’s surprisingly cozy ties with North Korea

A North Korea official speaks with officials at the morgue in Kuala Lumpur where Kim Jong-nam’s body is being held.
A North Korea official speaks with officials at the morgue in Kuala Lumpur where Kim Jong-nam’s body is being held.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Tensions are rising between North Korea and Malaysia over the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea yesterday made its first official statement on the apparent murder in Kuala Lumpur, accusing Malaysia of “colluding with outside forces” in the delay of releasing of Kim’s body to North Korean officials. Pyongyang had earlier tried to stop Malaysia from conducting an autopsy. Malaysia’s police chief says he can’t end the investigation into the death without obtaining DNA from Kim’s family to match with the body.

The relationship between the countries won’t be improved by the arrest yesterday of a North Korean citizen, a man identified as Ri Jong Chol, in connection with Kim’s death. The man was detained in a nighttime raid at a Kuala Lumpur condominium. Malaysian police are seeking three more men linked to the case.

Malaysia and North Korea have a surprisingly cozy relationship. Malaysia’s friendly relations with both the US and North Korea make one of the few countries where North Korean officials can engage with American counterparts. (Especially since Pyongyang cut its last direct diplomatic channel last June.) Kuala Lumpur was the venue for unofficial talks between North Korea and retired US officials in October.

Malaysians are the only nationals exempt from applying for a visa when traveling to North Korea, although an application for an entry permit is required. North Korea promotes itself as a tourist destination in Southeast Asia and India from an office in Kuala Lumpur. North Korean students study in Malaysia, and Malaysia’s Proton-branded cars have been spotted in North Korea.

North Korea is keen to boost business ties to Malaysia. Trade between the two countries amounted to RM23 million ($5.2 million) in 2015, according to Malaysian statistics. North Korea buys oil, rubber, and other commodities from Malaysia. In turn, Malaysia imports steel, electronics, iron, and chemicals. “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.

Malaysia is also a destination for North Korean workers. Some 300 North Koreans work in Malaysia, some in mining and construction, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall). Some also work in the Kuala Lumpur branch of the state-operated Pyongyang Koryo restaurant chain, which reportedly doubles as a listening post for North Korean spies.

Strange details about Kim Jong-nam’s killing have emerged from the Malaysian investigation. One of two women detained, Siti Aisyah, was duped into taking part in the assassination, according to Indonesia’s police chief. She believed she was paid to take part in a prank filmed for TV. The other, who carried a Vietnamese passport and wore an eye-catching t-shirt emblazoned with “LOL,” reportedly moved from hotel to hotel, in one case lugging a large teddy bear, and cut her hair the day before the attack. A former North Korean spy told Reuters that the suspected killers looked like amateurs.