China, UN crucial to free Malaysians from North Korea, experts say (VIDEO)

By Ida Lim
A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the North Korean embassy in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur March 7, 2017. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — China or the United Nations (UN) could play a key role in securing the release of Malaysians from the apparent hostage situation in North Korea, experts said.

Hazel Smith, a professor at the UK’s University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), highlighted the importance of China in getting Malaysians out of North Korea, owing to the country’s economic clout over the latter.

“China has no direct controls over North Korea, but it has influence partly because North Korea is economically dependent on China — about 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade is with China.

“China is definitely not supportive of these violations of international law by North Korea and may be prepared to use some influence behind the scenes to resolve this immediate matter of Malaysian citizens held against their will in the DPRK,” the director of the International Institute of Korean Studies Uclan told Malay Mail Online when contacted yesterday.

North Korea yesterday imposed a travel ban on all Malaysians there following souring ties over the February 13 murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam here.

Malaysia responded by barring North Koreans here from exiting the country and by sealing off the North Korean embassy allegedly harbouring several wanted suspects.

Malaysia has confirmed all 11 of its nationals in North Korea are safe. Two of them are UN employees sent there to attend a course related to the World Food Programme, while the remaining are three Malaysian embassy staff and their six family members.

Smith said Malaysia’s first step would be to broker the release of its citizens from North Korea, which may be best done through an intermediary such as the UN or Chinese diplomats.

She said Malaysia could also then seek to shut down existing economic opportunities here for North Korea, highlighting that North Korea’s ability to use Malaysia to conduct international economic transactions has been significant for the nation — which faces international financial sanctions.

“Malaysia could also very legitimately ask Asean partners to review all of the DPRK’s activities in the Asean region, which they have been trying for some time to establish as an alternative to China for economic transactions,” she said.

Academic Asri Salleh said Malaysia must extract its citizens immediately from North Korea, which he believed could only be done through mediation by a third party.

“And that makes China as the sole candidate to make it happen,” the senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) specialising in international relations told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

While there is no guarantee that China’s involvement could help soften North Korea’s stance, Malaysia must exhaust all means available, including seeking intervention from Russia, he said.

“The most important thing is that Malaysia must secure as much international support as possible to pressure North Korea to lift the ban, for a start, and then resolve the murder of Jong-nam amicably,” he said, adding that Malaysia can also bring up this matter at international organisations such as Asean, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly, he said.

Christoph Bluth, professor of international relations and security at UK’s University of Bradford, said Malaysia should enlist the aid of the Chinese government which could exert severe diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea, while the US could make it illegal for its citizens to visit North Korea.

“Malaysia has no leverage on North Korea except Kim Jong-nam’s body, so this crisis may end if the body is returned and all North Koreans return to North Korea. But Malaysia could internationalise the situation and get the UN Security Council involved,” he told Malay Mail Online.

It would be difficult to predict what may happen if there are people that Malaysia seeks to prosecute or if there are North Koreans in Malaysia who decide to defect instead of returning home, he said.

“In this case the situation would become even more complicated because North Korea will demand their return,” he said of a defection scenario.

Limited China effect?

Shahriman Lockman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia said Malaysia should seek the support of the UN — which has two Malaysian employees stuck in North Korea — and countries with diplomatic missions in Pyongyang to pressure North Korea.

“The UN has, at the very least, a stake in the Malaysians working for them in North Korea. Other countries with diplomatic representation in North Korea would recognise that this elevates the potential risks to their own diplomats and citizens in that country.

“China can play a facilitating role in resolving this but we must be realistic about how much leverage China has and is willing to bring to bear on North Korea,” the senior analyst at ISIS Malaysia’s foreign policy and security studies programme added.

National news agency Bernama reported late last night that a UN source in New York confirmed the global body will send a representative to North Korea to smoothen the process of extracting its two Malaysian staff there.

Professor William Case noted North Korea’s unpredictability as integral to its wrong footing of opponents, but said its disregard for losing allies could mean limited impact by China.

“But it is consistent in one way: it is quite untroubled over the prospect of losing what friends it still has, thus limiting the leverage that China can exert, while denying Malaysia much influence at all,” the head of University of Nottingham Malaysia’s school of politics, history and international relations told Malay Mail Online when contacted.