North Korea cuts diplomatic ties with Malaysia over US extradition

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that it was announcing “total severance of the diplomatic relations with Malaysia, which committed super-large hostile act against (North Korea) in subservience to the U.S. pressure.”

Updated - March 19, 2021 12:26 pm IST

Published - March 19, 2021 12:14 pm IST - South Korea

A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | File photo

A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | File photo

North Korea on Friday announced the termination of diplomatic ties with Malaysia over its decision to allow the extradition of a North Korean criminal suspect to the United States. It’s the latest development in growing animosity between Washington and Pyongyang as the North ramps up pressure on the Biden administration over a nuclear standoff.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S.-imposed money laundering charges against a North Korean national living in Malaysia are an “absurd fabrication and (a) sheer plot” orchestrated by “the principal enemy of our state.”

The ministry said that it was announcing “total severance of the diplomatic relations with Malaysia, which committed super-large hostile act against (North Korea) in subservience to the U.S. pressure.”

It warned that the United States will “pay a due price.”

It’s unclear whether or when North Korea will pull its diplomats out of Malaysia. North Korea has a history of backing away from its threats. For example, it has said it would cut off communication with rival South Korea countless times before reaching out to Seoul later.

Ties between North Korea and Malaysia have been virtually frozen since the 2017 slaying of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Observers believe no Malaysian diplomat is currently in North Korea. Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry website said the North Korean Embassy is led by Kim Yu Song, the chargé d’affaires and councilor, and six other staff.

Severing diplomatic ties would be a significant measure. Malaysia has long been regarded as one of North Korea’s crucial economic hubs, handling trade, labor exports and some illicit businesses in Southeast Asia. Experts say North Korea is taking a tough stance over the U.S.-requested extradition that it views as part of American efforts to apply pressure on the North.

“North Korea is taking a hard line because it thinks it must not back down (over the extradition) as it’ll then have a war of nerves with the Biden government in the next four years,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korea’s Korea University.

Nam said North Korea also likely worries that it could run into similar trouble in other Southeast Asian countries if it doesn’t strongly respond to the Malaysian extradition decision.

Threatening to cut ties with Malaysia was one of the strongest options North Korea could take to express its anger with the Biden administration without jeopardizing an eventual return to stalled nuclear negotiations with Washington, Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said.

North Korea has insisted it won’t engage in meaningful talks with Washington unless it abandons what Pyongyang’s perceives as a “hostile” policy. But experts say North Korea, whose moribund economy is hurting more because of the pandemic, will eventually seek to return to diplomacy to find ways to get sanctions relief.

Earlier this month, Malaysia’s top court rejected an assertion by North Korean Mun Chol Myong that the U.S. charge was politically motivated, ruling that he could be extradited. Mun had lived in Malaysia for a decade and was arrested in May 2019 after U.S. authorities requested his extradition.

In his affidavit, Mun denied U.S. accusations that he was involved in supplying prohibited luxury goods from Singapore to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions while working in the city-state.

He denied that he had laundered funds through front companies and that he issued fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to his country. He said in his affidavit that the U.S. extradition request was aimed at pressuring North Korea over its missile program.

After that ruling, Mun’s family hired a lawyer to challenge the legality of the extradition. Lawyer Emile Ezra said the new legal bid centered on Mun’s right to a fair hearing after the court refused to accept his affidavit, and also an injunction to stop his extradition.

The North Korean statement said Mun has already been sent to the United States. Ezra said police haven’t replied to his query and that he cannot confirm if Mun was still in Malaysia. He said he was informed by the prison on Wednesday that Mun has been surrendered to police custody.

Home Ministry officials in Malaysia couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

North Korea and Malaysia established diplomatic ties in 1973, but their relations suffered major setbacks over the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam.

Two women — one Indonesia and the other Vietnamese — were charged with colluding with four North Koreans to murder Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX nerve agent. The four North Koreans fled Malaysia the day Kim died.

Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea of involvement in Kim’s death, but prosecutors made it clear throughout the trial that they suspected a North Korean connection. North Korea has denied any role. The two women, who have said they thought they were taking part in a harmless prank for a TV show, were later released.

South Korea’s spy service said North Korea had for several years tried to kill Kim Jong Nam, though he once sent a letter to Kim Jong Un begging for the lives of himself and his family members after an assassination attempt. Longtime North Korea watchers believe Kim Jong Un ordered his brother’s killing as part of efforts to remove potential rivals and cement his grip on power.

Amid a diplomatic tit-for-tat, Malaysia scrapped visa-free entry for North Koreans and expelled the North’s ambassador before North Korea banned all Malaysians from exiting the country.

Cutting diplomatic ties would require each country to formally shut down their embassies, withdraw diplomats and liquidate local property. “But if North Korea doesn’t take any action, their diplomatic ties will be maintained. Malaysia won’t ask why they aren’t following through with” its threat, said analyst Lee Jaehyon at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

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