Southeast Asia | Tougher scrutiny for North Korean-Southeast Asian ties

Tougher scrutiny for North Korean-Southeast Asian ties

While China is often identified as North Korea's chief patron and protector, Southeast Asian nations also help to sustain the isolated regime

Chiang Mai, March 20, 2017 4:42 PM (UTC+8)
A member of the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's ruling coalition, holds a placard during a protest at the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Athit Perawongmetha
A member of the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's ruling coalition, holds a placard during a protest at the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Athit Perawongmetha

The arrest of two women, one from Vietnam, the other from Indonesia, for their alleged involvement in the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur’s airport on February 13 has underscored Pyongyang’s complicated ties to Southeast Asia – linkages that are expected to come under tougher scrutiny as the United States ups its pressure on the hermit regime.

Malaysian authorities announced soon after the headline-grabbing murder that there could be as many as 1,000 North Koreans in Malaysia, many as guest workers. Malaysia was also until recently one of very few countries worldwide where North Koreans could visit without a visa.

For years, North Korea-controlled front companies in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have been involved in everything from procuring dual-use items and light machinery for Pyongyang’s defense industries to banking and barter trades for foodstuffs including rice.

North Korean restaurants in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, meanwhile, have provided Pyongyang’s embassies in those countries — and the government itself — badly needed foreign exchange earnings that have helped to ease the blow of Western-imposed sanctions.

A car parks in front of a North Korean restaurant in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on December 18, 2003. Besides dog meat soup and Pyongyang cold noodles, the restaurant, one of a small but growing number of North Korean eateries in Southeast Asia, and is offering a rare glimpse of life inside the reclusive Stalinist state. FOR USE WITH FEATURE CAMBODIA-KOREA REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea  ED/RCS - RTR9275
A North Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Reuters / Chor Sokunthea

The extent of North Korea’s labor exports to Malaysia became known only after Pyongyang banned Malaysian citizens from leaving North Korea and Kuala Lumpur responded tit for tat by rounding up North Koreans in Malaysia whose work permits had expired.

Most of the 1,000 North Koreans in Malaysia may be there legally but it was revealed that only 36 of the 170 based in the Borneo state of Sarawak had valid permits. Pyongyang’s labor exports to Malaysia became known to a wider public in November 2014 after a North Korean worker was among those killed in an explosion in a Sarawak coal mine.

Malaysia’s then deputy home minister Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, who is now minister of natural resources and environment, said at the time: “When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough. No local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs. That’s why we need foreign workers.”

North Korea has in recent years bought, or tried to buy, large quantities of sodium cyanide from Malaysia and Thailand. The dual-use chemical can be used to make sarin nerve gas or to manufacture fertilizer or in industrial plating. Pyongyang is also known by security analysts to have been in the market for phosphorus pentasulfide, a key ingredient in VX, the nerve agent that was used to kill Kim Jong-nam.

For years, North Korea-controlled front companies in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have been involved in everything from procuring dual-use items and light machinery for Pyongyang’s defense industries to banking and barter trades for foodstuffs including rice.

The origin as well as the final destination of such items are in most cases difficult to ascertain because the goods are procured by North Korean front companies and then shipped through several layers of middlemen across the region.

North Korea also has a long and cordial relationship with Cambodia, thanks largely to the strong friendship between two old and now deceased leaders: North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and Cambodia’s late head of state Norodom Sihanouk.

North Korean ships were registered in Cambodia until the Phnom Penh government ended its long-running flag of convenience scheme in August last year. The practice, which allowed North Korean to register several ships in Cambodia to avoid detection at sea, was stopped due to Western pressure.

In the same month, vessel tracking sites showed the North Korean ship Jie Shun, then sailing under a Cambodian flag, docking at a port near Cairo, Egypt. According to Kyodo News, the ship was carrying a large consignment of munitions supposedly in violation of UN-imposed sanctions on North Korean arms exports. 

It could also be significant that Doan Thi Huong, one of the two women who stands accused of killing Kim Jong-nam, visited two hotels in the Cambodian capital the month before the murder. How Huong, who the Malaysian authorities have identified as an “entertainment worker”, linked up with her companion, Indonesian Siti Asiyah, is also not known.

File photo showing Kim Jong Nam arriving at Beijing airport in 2007. Picture: Kyodo via Reuters
File photo showing Kim Jong Nam arriving at Beijing airport in 2007. Picture: Kyodo via Reuters

But it is not inconceivable that the plot was at least in part hatched in Cambodia, where the North Koreans maintain a huge embassy. Both women now claim they thought they had been hired for a harmless prank for a TV show.

According to European Union statistics, three Southeast Asian countries were among North Korea’s top ten official trading partners in 2015: Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines.

To be sure, none of them compare to the volume and value of China’s bilateral trade with North Korea, which totaled nearly US$7 billion in that year. But Myanmar was fifth on the list with US$160 million worth of goods, Thailand seventh with US$85 million and the Philippines eighth with US$66 million.

Imports from the Philippines consist mostly of food, while trade with Thailand is more diversified. When Thailand’s then foreign minister and now deputy prime minister Tanasak Patimaprakorn received his North Korean counterpart Ri Su Yong in August 2015, the latter invited Thai businesses to invest in North Korea because “the Thais are trustworthy and don’t interfere with matters that don’t involve them.” 

The South China Morning Post reported at the time that “a subsidiary of the Thai telecom company Loxley has been a major investor in North Korea for more than a decade and helped it to modernize its communications infrastructure.” Thai exports to North Korea include rubber, chemicals and plastics, while North Korea exports consists of iron, steel and electrical machinery.

North Korea's Foreign Minister Li Su Yong (L) shakes hands with Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok, Thailand, August 10, 2015. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom  - RTX1NQQ4
Cordial ties: North Korean Foreign Minister Li Su Yong (L) and Thai Deputy Prime Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn. Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Myanmar ties to North Korea, however, are a different matter altogether as the two sides signed a mutual defense agreement with North Korea when one of the strongmen of the then ruling junta, Thura Shwe Mann, paid a secret visit to Pyongyang in November 2008. Even before that, North Korea had exported field artillery and other weapons to Myanmar.

North Korean tunneling experts are known to have been involved in constructing underground defense installations near the newly built Myanmar capital Naypyidaw, in Aung Ban in Shan State, and near the Defense Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin. In return, Myanmar shipped large quantities of rice to North Korea in what appeared to be a barter arrangement.

The strategic relationship between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang was one of the key strategic reasons why the United States decided to shift its Myanmar policy in recent years from punitive sanctions and boycotts to engagement. Myanmar’s North Korean ties were high on the agenda when then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December 2011.

Since then Myanmar has supposedly severed links with North Korea, but even official statistics show otherwise. It is also widely believed, and claimed by former Myanmar military officers, that North Korean technicians are still in Myanmar assisting its military develop a missile program.

With the prospect of more Western and UN sanctions against North Korea for Kim Jong-un’s assassination, Southeast Asia’s trade, investment and strategic links to Pyongyang will likely come under heightened and tougher scrutiny. For it is not only trade with China that has sustained North Korea’s terror-linked regime.

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