Three weeks ago, Malaysia was one of North Korea’s most important trading partners — a haven, hub, and way station for its arms trafficking, money laundering, and slave labor. Money has long been the limiting reagent in Pyongyang’s experiment with phobocracy. It’s now clear that Kim Jong-un will soon pay a heavy financial and diplomatic price for the badly botched murder of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam with a persistent nerve agent in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur last month. (I’ve described this as the first case of international terrorism using a weapon of mass destruction.)
The Malaysian investigation quickly implicated eight North Koreans, including a diplomat. Three of those men are still hiding in the North Korean Embassy. North Korea, with ghoulish obsession, demanded the repatriation of Kim Jong-nam’s body. Malaysia refused to release it without a DNA sample from a relative confirming the identity of the deceased. North Korea condemned the Malaysian investigation as biased, Malaysia expelled the North Korean ambassador, and North Korea expelled the Malaysian ambassador. And then, this happened:
Pyongyang, March 7 (KCNA) — The Protocol Department of the DPRK Foreign Ministry, at the request of a relevant organ, on Tuesday informed the Malaysian Embassy here of its decision to temporarily ban the exit of Malaysian citizens in the DPRK until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of the DPRK in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case that occurred in Malaysia.
It expressed hope that the Malaysian Embassy here and the Foreign Ministry of Malaysia would fairly settle the current case as early as possible from the goodwill stand of setting store by and developing the bilateral relations.
In this period the diplomats and citizens of Malaysia may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before. -0- [KCNA]
Call the ACLU and petition the Ninth Circuit — Kim Jong-un just issued a #muslimban! Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak responded in kind:
The Malaysian government’s ban doesn’t just affect diplomats. The PM said “all North Korean citizens” and he meant it.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi made the announcement today in an immediate reaction to Pyongyang’s ban against Malaysians from leaving North Korea.
“As a response to foreign minister of North Korea, the Home Ministry via Immigration has released an immediate ruling that not one officer in Malaysia is to leave the country. “This is effective immediately to all exits of immigration nationwide,” he told a news conference here.
Ahmad Zahid also said the Cabinet will meet this Friday and discuss if it is to sever all ties with North Korea. He reiterated that Malaysia will not tolerate being accused of a murder conspiracy without proof.
“We have no intent to take any reciprocating action. But after this has been done by a country with diplomatic ties with Malaysia outside of the normal conventions of bilateral relationships, Malaysia is forced to take a similar action as they have manipulated the murder case here.
“We want to send a clear message, ‘Don’t point fingers at us and don’t look down upon Malaysia as (a) sovereign nation,” he said. [Malay Mail Online]
Reports that Malaysian diplomats were burning documents at their embassy in Pyongyang give you a good idea where that decision is headed. The Malaysian government is also reviewing trade relations with North Korea and was expected to make a decision by the end of the week.
“We don’t intend to retaliate but this is what must be done when a country that has diplomatic relations with Malaysia acts outside diplomatic norms,” Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Tuesday. “We want to send a clear message — do not point fingers at Malaysia and do not belittle Malaysia’s standing as a sovereign country that has carried out investigations professionally.” [Bloomberg]
Eleven Malaysians are now trapped inside North Korea, some of them at Sunan Airport. Three are embassy employees, six are their family members, and two are humanitarian aid workers for the World Food Program. (I wonder if the Ministry of State Security will send an officer to literally bite their hands, to perfect the metaphor.) There are about 300 North Koreans in Malaysia, including 170 coal miners laboring in brutal conditions in Sarawak. Authorities there are awaiting orders from K.L. about how to respond.
At this point, it’s useful to cite an authoritative definition of “hostage.” Legally, the U.S. Criminal Code only prohibits hostage-taking involving U.S. nationals, but otherwise defines “hostage taking” as “to detain another person in order to compel a third person or a governmental organization to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the person detained.” That sounds like what both governments are doing at this point, with two exceptions — the two North Korean non-diplomats who are hiding inside the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and who are wanted by the police for questioning in the Kim Jong-nam murder investigation.
The common reaction to this, even in Malaysia, is to call it a “tit-for-tat.” My immediate reaction was also to view both sides as guilty of hostage-taking and violating the Vienna Convention, which guarantees diplomats freedom of movement and immunity from criminal prosecution. On closer examination, however, the Malaysians might have a case that their action is a lawful “countermeasure,” a doctrine with some basis in customary international law (start at Article 49).
But what the law allows isn’t necessarily the best policy, and I tend to think the Malaysians are going about this all wrong by lowering themselves to Pyongyang’s level. Their best leverage, after all, would consist of a series of perfectly legal acts. Begin with the fact that among some of those 300 North Koreans, not all of them likely want to go back to Pyongyang. That would go double for the ones who are involved in botching the hit on Kim Jong-nam. Regardless of whether the Malaysian government has a legal right to prevent the departure of the North Koreans — and their ban is probably disproportionate, if understandable — holding North Koreans as effective hostages isn’t their best form of leverage by a long shot.
Instead, the Malaysian government should initiate a series of criminal investigations of North Korean activities in Malaysia for violating U.N. sanctions, and start seizing property that belongs to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Korea Mining Development Corporation, and other U.N.-designated entities. That approach has the advantages of being (a) perfectly legal, and (b) much more concerning to Pyongyang than actions that affect its citizens, who are all deemed more-or-less expendable anyway. To further increase the pressure on Pyongyang, Malaysia could guarantee each departing North Korean a lengthy unmonitored interview with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, affording each departing North Korean the option to defect instead. Rewards and asylum could be offered to those who provide information leading to an arrest or conviction. Imagine the pressure that would put on Pyongyang. It might even be a useful experiment in how to negotiate with Pyongyang from strength.