Assassination puts Malaysia, North Korea ties in spotlight

Bilateral ties came under the spotlight this week when it emerged that Kim Jong-Nam was assassinated in Malaysia on Monday.

Kim Jong Nam

Bilateral ties came under the spotlight this week when it emerged that Kim Jong-Nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur's main airport on Monday.

South Korean intelligence chiefs say he was poisoned by agents from the North as he was about to board a flight for Macau.

North Korea has made no comment on the killing, but its diplomats objected to an autopsy Malaysian investigators carried out, a senior Kuala Lumpur official said.

But Malaysia deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the killing would not affect ties between the two nations.

Malaysia has served in recent years as a discreet meeting place for talks between Washington and Pyongyang, underscoring the southeast Asian country's cordial relations with North Korea.

In October 2016, a group of former US diplomats held closed door talks in Kuala Lumpur with senior Pyongyang officials amid an international effort at that time to further isolate North Korea.

Although diplomatic relations were established as long ago as 1973, North Korea opened an embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2003 and a year later Malaysia did the same in Pyongyang.

Both countries do not require visas for their people, making largely Muslim Malaysia one of the few countries where citizens of the reclusive country can easily visit.

North Korea's flag-carrier Air Koryo opened direct flights between the two capitals in 2011 but these were stopped in 2014 following a new round of UN Security Council Sanctions against Pyongyang.

North Korea imports refined oil, natural rubber and palm oil from Malaysia, which buys electrical and electronic items, chemicals as well as iron and steel products from North Korea.

"North Korea is now looking at using Malaysia as a gateway to Southeast Asian markets," Dzulkifli Mahmud, chief executive of the Malaysia External Trade Development Corp, said last December.

"Our relationship with North Korea has been growing positively for the past few years," he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

Underscoring the warm ties, North Korean President Kim Jong-Un holds an honorary doctorate in economics awarded by Help University, a private school in Malaysia, according to a 2013 report by the Korean Central News Agency.

However, a stint in Malaysia has before presaged the demise of a prominent North Korean.

Jang Yong-Chol, a North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, was executed in Pyongyang shortly after he was recalled from Kuala Lumpur in 2013. Jang was a cousin of Kim Jong-Nam.

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