Airport Killing Highlights the Depth of Ties between North Korea & Southeast Asia

By Keith Luse —

The Embassy of North Korea in Hanoi, Vietnam. Many Southeast Asian countries have ties with North Korea. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

The February killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia brought attention to relations between North Korea and Malaysia, revealing a deep web of interaction. Before this, if Americans thought about North Korea’s ties to Southeast Asia at all, it was often through the lens of North Korea’s involvement in the 1983 bombing in Yangon, Myanmar (then Rangoon), of the visiting delegation of then South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan in which approximately 20 people died.

But the extent of interaction between North Korea and Southeast Asia is deeper and more comprehensive than many casual observers might expect.  North Korea has embassies in most Southeast Asian countries, and North Koreans have worked in construction, mining, information technology (IT) and the restaurant business in the region. Two-way trade between between North Korea and Southeast Asia was estimated at over $100 million in 2015 by the South Korean government.

At the height of the Cold War, Indonesian president Sukarno in April 1965 invited North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and Prince Norodom Sihanouk to the 10th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement in Indonesia, the so-called Bandung conference. This marked the beginning of an enduring and close relationship between the Cambodian and North Korean leaders.

Kim Il-sung’s son and later leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il accompanied his father on the Indonesia trip. Kim Jong-il’s biography reports that out of concern for his father’s safety, Kim Jong-il embedded himself as a security guard in his father’s delegation, without advance notice to the Indonesians. Kim Jong-il viewed the trip as dangerous writing,“…the situation in Southeast Asia was very tense owing to the aggressive war provoked by U.S. imperialists in Vietnam, and the situation in Indonesia was being aggravated because of moves of the reactionary rightists”.

Fast forward to former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s North Korea trip in 2002, during which she conveyed South Korean president Kim Dae-jung’s appeal for the North to revive talks with Seoul and Washington.

(Actually, Megawati and Kim Jong Il were childhood acquaintances, having first met while accompanying their fathers to the 1965 Non-Aligned Movement meeting).

In Malaysia, the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shined a spotlight on Malaysia’s complex relationship with North Korea. Malaysia and North Korea have long shared a visa-free status for their visitors. For years, North Korean IT workers have contracted to work with Malaysian companies. Kuala Lumpur’s HELP University, (which lists partnerships with dozens of American universities), four years ago awarded an honorary degree in economics to Kim Jong Un.

A retired high-ranking Malaysian diplomat attributes the close ties in large part to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who in the early 1980s welcomed North Korean officials as his first foreign guests – to convey support for the Non-Aligned Movement and also to send a strong message to the United States.

A separate but notable factor in North Korea’s nexus with Malaysia and Singapore, is the existing clusters of brokers who facilitate informal financial transactions with persons in other countries. Singapore serves as a destination for medical care and relaxation for North Koreans as well.

Myanmar officials responded to the 1983 Yangon bombing attack by cutting diplomatic ties with Pyongyang which were re-established in 2007. Along the way, the North Korean and Myanmar militaries developed an active and complex relationship which included Myanmar bartering for military equipment with North Korea. There have long been reports about the two countries extensive cooperation on a range of military programs. Myanmar officials now insist past agreements have ended.

Thailand established relations with North Korea in 1975. A former high-ranking Thai official says Thailand extended technical cooperation to North Korea in such areas as agriculture, fisheries, medicine, sports and Thai language studies. Thailand in 2015 was North Korea’s fourth largest trading partner. Unresolved issues between the two countries include the reported 1978 abduction of the Thai citizen, Anocha Panjoy – by North Korea agents, in Macau, as well as North Korea’s debt on the purchase of rice.

China has played an active role in North Korea’s relations with Southeast Asia, including in pressing Laos and Thailand to repatriate North Korean refugees who arrived in these countries seeking asylum. On numerous occasions, Lao and Thai officials have found themselves sandwiched between China and U.S. pressure to return North Korean refugees, often considered by the Chinese as “economic migrants.”

In Cambodia, Julio Jeldres, King Norodom Sihanouk’s official biographer has said that the friendship between Sihanouk and Kim Il Sung was unique in that it was not predicated on ideology, strategic or trade interests, but rather, ”purely on the friendship between the two leaders and the support they gave to each other during difficult times.” This personal relationship held firm despite the vagaries of the competition and intervention of the then Soviet Union and China in East and Southeast Asia during the lifetimes of Sihanouk and Kim Il Sung.

After the two leaders became friends, Cambodia eventually extended diplomatic recognition to North Korea and severed ties with the South – a move never forgotten by Kim Il Sung.

Following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sihanouk spent considerable time at his 60-room, lake-side palace 45 minutes outside of Pyongyang. With the assistance of the Korean Film Studios, Sihanouk made several films at this location.

When he returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s and eventually became king, Sihanouk surrounded himself with North Korean body guards – as journalist Bertil Lintner has said, “people he knew he could trust.” More recently, North Korea financed and was involved in the construction of a multi-million-dollar museum in Siem Reap which highlights Cambodia’s ancient temples.

Mr. Keith Luse, Executive Director of the National Committee on North Korea, formerly served as a senior staff member at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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