Snooping on North Koreans in Malaysia

Bernama

KUALA LUMPUR: The victim an exiled heir apparent to a totalitarian dynasty who was on the run, and an intricate murder scheme using dangerous toxic nerve agent and two beautiful women operatives.

This murder episode of Kim Jong-nam on Feb 13 has all the essence for a perfect spy novel, and unveiled North Korea’s elaborate global espionage web.

While the dust has started to settle on the Jong-nam murder, with Jong-nam’s remains repatriated back to Pyongyang on March 30 in exchange for the nine Malaysians stranded in North Korea following the diplomatic fallout from the episode, many questions remain unanswered.

The saga attracted hundreds of journalists from all over the world and put Malaysia in the media spotlight.

Many of the journalists, including this writer who was actively involved in the news coverage relating to the killing of the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went undercover to learn more of the North Koreans here.

Hence, for once this writer got a taste of a ‘spy’s’ work when she went snooping at the only North Korean restaurant in Jalan Imbi, which has been on the limelight following Jong-nam’s murder.



GETTING INTO THE THICK OF ACTION

It was at the height of the fallout in the ties between North Korea and Malaysia, when the rouge country’s ambassador Kang Chol was given 48 hours to leave the host country, this writer decided check out the place.

To avoid suspicion and to make sure the cover is not blown, the writer walked into the restaurant for dinner with another journalist friend dressed casually without any of the items that could identify one as a member of the press.

The restaurant was a converted bungalow and we had to pass a guard post manned by a Nepali guard who was certainly not pleased with our presence there.

Behind the closed doors, the beautiful waitresses greeted the guests but a look into their eyes clearly indicated that they were nervous of the presence of Malaysians there.

The smile and friendly welcome quickly turned cold. They were hesitant to entertain us further to the initial welcome. Did their suspicion on us kick in? Or is our cover blown?

We too felt uneasy but pretended to be genuine patrons in search of a good meal. Browsing through the menu, we ordered yukgaejang (spicy beef soup with vegetables), North Korean dried chili chicken, kimchi (vegetable pickle) and North Korean pan cakes with green tea to drink.

The food was palatable and as we dined we could not help but notice a sign stating ‘No Pictures Please, We Are Shy’. There was a television to entertain diners, with typical North Korean entertainment shows glorifying Kim Jong-un’s dynasty.



BEING WATCHED

There were about 12 tables, the interior of the restaurant was exquisite suggesting it was offering fine dining. Above each table there was an air conditioning vent, that raised suspicions.

Is there a hidden camera above? There were a few other diners in the restaurant mainly Koreans, could be North or South Koreans, and one Westerner.

In the 90 minutes that we were in the restaurant there was a strong sense that we were being watched. This writer and friend also had a funny feeling that the conversation was being tapped through a device possibly fitted below the table. This writer felt like being followed even to the restroom!

Why did we felt being watched or followed? Or were we just being paranoid after reading how regimented were the lives of North Koreans and the country’s brutal regime that shows no mercy for dissidents.



A MICROCOSM OF NORTH KOREA?

This writer believes waitresses at the restaurant have all the reasons to be suspicious, as all North Koreans have been ingrained with the mindset that everyone else out there could be their potential enemy.

Moreover, North Koreans are not allowed to exit their country freely with the Communist regime having strict rules towards its citizens and monitors them closely. In North Korea, if citizens need to travel to the next district, even a mere 20 km journey requires permission from guards.

The ones allowed to travel out of the country are mostly to serve their government including for espionage purposes.

So who are the 1,000 odd North Koreans in Malaysia? Of course they include the waitresses that served this writer and friend.

In getting on with the ‘spy’ work, this writer asked the waitress about her origin,’ Are you North or South Korean’.

In a courteous manner, and in fluent English she replied ‘I’m from North Korea, I’m from Pyongyang’.

Despite of the petite and good-looking waitress’s pleasant demeanour, one could easily sense her fake expression. The writer’s friend jumped the gun, and probably blew the cover, when she asked what she thought over the travel ban imposed by the Malaysian government towards North Koreans.

“We are okay here”, that was all she said before moving away. Realising that they will be more suspicious on us now we decided to pay up and leave.

The thing that I learnt that day of the North Koreans working there is that they are very detached and suspicious of everyone around them.

I have never traveled to North Korea, but I believe cynical attitude of the people that I came across at the restaurant was truly a glimpse of what foreigners could expect in North Korea. -- Bernama