By Hadi Azmi
North Korean embassy officials and their families left Malaysia on Sunday after Pyongyang severed decades-old diplomatic ties following the extradition of a North Korean national to the United States to face criminal trial.
Malaysia then ordered the diplomats out in 48 hours, and accused North Korea of attempting to meddle in its judicial system, where Mun Chol Myong lost a battle to halt his extradition following his arrest in May 2019.
“The action by the Government of Malaysia has become a necessity in order to protect Malaysia’s sovereignty and safeguard our national interest,” Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a statement on Sunday regarding the expulsion of the diplomats.
“This action is a reminder that Malaysia shall never tolerate any attempt to meddle in our internal affairs and judiciary, disrespect our governance system, and constantly create unnecessary tensions in defiance of the rules-based international order,” he said.
Bilateral ties have been strained since the Pyongyang-linked murder of the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at a Kuala Lumpur airport four years ago
Thirty-three North Koreans including children left the embassy at Jalan Batai in Kuala Lumpur at 11 a.m. on Sunday. A Malaysian police official confirmed the number.
North Korean Charge d’affaires Kim Yu Song addressed the press before leaving the compound, reading out part of a statement issued by Pyongyang two days earlier, but declined to take questions.
“[T]he Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK hereby announces total severance of diplomatic relations with Malaysia, which committed a large hostile act against the DPRK in subservience of the U.S. pressure,” he said, using an acronym for North Korea’s formal name.
“The Malaysian authority will bear full responsibility for all consequences to be incurred between the two countries,” Kim said.
At the airport, the group checked in at Shanghai Airlines, and Kim confirmed to BenarNews that they would be flying to Shanghai. The flight left Malaysia at 4.55 p.m., according to flightradar24, a flight tracker.
Kim did not elaborate on their subsequent travel arrangements.
North Korea has effectively locked down its borders and airspace as part of the regime’s effort to keep COVID-19 at bay. CNN in a report on Feb. 26 said that the restrictions also cover North Korea’s own Air Koryo, whose flights have been grounded “for months.”
‘A due price’
Malaysia’s Federal Court earlier this month dismissed Mun’s final appeal against the extradition to face four counts of money laundering charges and two counts of conspiracy to launder money.
Hishammuddin’s office confirmed Friday that Mun had been extradited on March 17. The extradition came as North Korea rebuffed U.S. moves to resume talks aimed at ending the hardline communist state’s nuclear weapons drive.
“We warn in advance that the U.S. – the backstage manipulator and main culprit of this incident – that it will also be made to pay a due price,” said a statement carried Friday by North Korean state news agency KCNA.
Through his lawyer, Mun had argued in court that he was the victim of a “politically motivated” extradition request aimed at pressuring North Korea over its missile program.
A man in his 50s who had lived in Malaysia since 2008, Mun was arrested in May 2019 after the U.S. accused him of supplying prohibited luxury goods to North Korea, in violation of United Nations sanctions.
He allegedly laundered funds through front companies and issued fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to North Korea, while working in Singapore, prior to moving to Malaysia.
But Pyongyang claimed that Mun had been engaged in legitimate external trade activities in Singapore for many years.
Hoo Chiew Ping, an expert on Korean peninsula political affairs, said that Malaysia was now the only country in Southeast Asia without diplomatic ties with both North Korea and South Korea.
“All ASEAN members have relations with both Koreas. Now Malaysia is the only one that doesn’t have equal and balanced diplomatic relations between the two, because it just lost North Korea.
“Malaysia loses its leverage as a key player on Korean Peninsula agenda at the ASEAN level,” Hoo told Benar News, using an acronym for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Asked about North Korea’s characterization of Malaysia as subservient to the United States, she said that under the Trump administration, Malaysia and other small countries around the world were subjected to Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on North Korea.
“For Malaysia, this was more so after the Kim Jong Nam assassination. Our handling of the case was under heavy criticism,” she said.
Malaysia’s once-close ties with Pyongyang hit rock bottom after the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was killed with a banned nerve agent at one of Kuala Lumpur’s international airports in February 2017.
Malaysia suspended operation of its embassy in Pyongyang after it secured the safe return of nine citizens held there, in exchange for the release of Kim Jong Nam’s body. The embassy has been vacant since then.
“Malaysia had always considered the DPRK as a close partner since the establishment of the diplomatic relations in 1973,” a Malaysian foreign ministry statement said Friday, adding that Putrajaya had maintained ties with Pyongyang even after the “deplorable” assassination of Kim Jong Nam.
It called the severing of ties unwarranted, disproportionate and disruptive of peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
Mun’s conviction and extradition were based on the principles of justice and rule of law, the Malaysian statement said, adding that the government had rejected a series of diplomatic notes from North Korea attempting to intervene in its judiciary and legal system.
It further added that the extradition was carried out only after Mun exhausted all his legal options, and that his rights were maintained while in custody, including access to defense counsel, consular visits and family visits.