By Hadi Azmi
Malaysia will reopen its Pyongyang embassy, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in signaling a potential warming in bilateral relations that were strained after last year’s assassination of the North Korean leader’s estranged half-brother at a Kuala Lumpur airport.
Mahathir, who heads Malaysia’s newly elected government, revealed the move during a three-day visit to Tokyo where he called for pursuing “good relations” with North Korea’s young leader.
“Yes, we will reopen the embassy,” Mahathir told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview Monday, responding to a question about whether he would consider reopening Malaysia’s embassy in North Korea.
The mission’s Malaysian staff was repatriated amid a diplomatic row that erupted in the weeks following the February 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam, the half-sibling of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, are standing trial in a Malaysian court on charges that they murdered Kim Jong Nam in a chemical weapon attack by smearing his face with the deadly VX nerve agent. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty, saying they were tricked into believing that they were participating in a TV “prank show.”
The incident sparked the row between the two nations which had enjoyed bilateral ties since 1973. Malaysia recalled its ambassador, banned its citizens from traveling to North Korea and canceled visa-free entry for North Koreans.
In response, North Korea retaliated with a travel ban on all Malaysians in Pyongyang, trapping three diplomats and six family members, who were able to fly out only after Malaysia agreed to hand over Kim Jong Nam’s remains and send home three North Koreans wanted for questioning.
At the height of last year’s diplomatic crisis, the government of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, along with South Korea and the United States, accused North Korea of being behind Kim’s killing.
New North Korean attitude
But on Tuesday, Mahathir told a Tokyo conference on the Future of Asia, organized by Nikkei, that his administration was more interested in a new attitude displayed by Kim Jong Un during the North Korean leader’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, according to reports.
“We used to think North Korea was a very belligerent country that doesn’t care for the rest of the world, that they want to use nuclear weapons,” Mahathir said. “But today he is making effort to establish better relations even with the United States.”
Tuesday’s historic meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders culminated in a joint statement that opened the door to the prospect of ending decades of hostility between Washington and Pyongyang.
Mahathir, who will turn 93 on July 10 and who previously served as prime minister from 1981 until 2003, said the public should not be skeptical about the latest developments involving North Korea.
“We should take North Korea at face value and get it to participate in international negotiations to moderate the rigid attitude it had before,” he said. ”We should take it as genuine, and try to establish good relations including a trade relationship with North Korea.”
During a joint news conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Mahathir said that when North Korea “makes a step forward to the right direction, a bright future may lay ahead.”
Abe pledged to work closely with Mahathir to cooperate in addressing North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, according to Japan’s Kyodo news service.
“I will closely cooperate with Mr. Mahathir to send out a powerful message to North Korea,” Abe told a joint news conference.
‘Time to rebuild relations’
Back in Malaysia, Ahn Sang Wuk, a professor at University Malaya, echoed Mahathir’s sentiment about pursuing a warming in bilateral relations.
“Malaysia’s action back then to recall its ambassador was justified for that time to show they are angry at North Korea,” he told BenarNews. “But now is the time to rebuild relations.”