The best explanation for the curiously asymmetrical deal that Malaysia struck with North Korea this week to secure the return of nine Malaysian citizens is that Prime Minister Najib Razak badly needed a political win at home.
Yet if a deal that sees the release of Kim Jong-nam’s body to the Pyongyang regime believed to have ordered his assassination — along with two North Korean suspects in that murder — constitutes victory for the Malaysian leader, it’s hard to imagine what defeat would look like.
Three Malaysian embassy officials and six family members, including four small children, arrived in Kuala Lumpur early yesterday, almost a month after they were banned from leaving Pyongyang in a diplomatic stand-off over the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother.
“We won’t deny that when the DPRK government imposed the travel ban, we were very concerned, especially since we had committed no wrong,” Mohammad Nor Azrin Mohammad Zain, a very relieved former counsellor at Malaysia’s Pyongyang embassy, said on arrival.
Hours before the hostages’ arrival, Mr Najib issued a statement from India, where he was on a five-day state visit, thanking God for their safe return.
MIGHT AS WELL CLOSE DOWN CASE
The police investigation into Jong-nam’s murder would continue with “all possible measures to be taken to bring those responsible for this murder to justice”, he vowed.
Yet it is hard to see what police can achieve, having relinquished at least two of three North Korean suspects known to have been sheltering at the Pyongyang embassy. Two young women charged with the murder, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnam’s Doan Thi Huong, have said they thought they were participating in a TV prank.
If Malaysia has released the masterminds behind the murder, it will be difficult to establish a motive for their crime.
CLEAR WIN FOR N.KOREA: MALAYSIA’S STRONG HAND TURNED SOUR BY CORRUPTION IN ITS OWN RANKS
A few hours before the Malaysian diplomats’ arrival, North Korean second secretary Hyon Kwang-song and Air Koryo staffer Kim Wook-il landed in Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian media reported last night a third North Korean, Ri Ji-u, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur was also allowed to go home
The body of Jong-nam was also in Beijing yesterday and would be flown to Pyongyang today on an Air Koryo plane, along with the two men.
“This is a clear win for North Korea and a clear loss for Najib,” University of Tasmania professor James Chin said. “The Malaysian side had all the leverage.
“They could’ve released a lot of information about North Korean illegal activities, businesses in Malaysia that help Pyongyang bypass UN sanctions. They didn’t do it.”
FINAL HUMILIATION: JURY STILL OUT ON ‘VX’, ELECTION LOOMS, JOINT-STATEMENT
Malaysia appeared to hold a strong hand as relations soured with Pyongyang following the Cold War-style killing of Jong-nam, 45, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13.
Police had the body, had evidence from post-mortem examinations that the killers used the banned VX nerve gas, had three key suspects holed up at the North Korean embassy.
When Pyongyang announced its exit ban on Malaysians in North Korea on March 7, a move affecting a small group of citizens, Mr Najib responded with a reciprocal ban on 1000 North Koreans living in Malaysia thanks to visa-free entry privileges. By the following day his language had turned markedly conciliatory, perhaps as the reality of negotiating with a rogue nation finally dawned.
“What you have to understand is that if, for example, some of these Malaysian hostages were killed in North Korea, it would have been a major issue in the next general election,” Professor Chin said.
Malaysia rescinded visa-free entry for North Koreans in late February but in a final humiliation on Thursday night, a Pyongyang-issued “joint statement” (which Malaysia has not endorsed) said both countries had agreed to “positively discuss” their restoration.