Latest in North Korea-Malaysia meltdown: Hostage taking?

Perhaps no greater example of diplomatic cutting of noses to spite faces has ever emerged than the rapidly collapsing ties between North Korea and Malaysia. After Pyongyang ordered the assassination of the ne’er-do-well brother of the dictator in Kuala Lumpur using a banned nerve agent, the two countries have expelled each other’s ambassadors, ending any practical diplomatic relations. North Korea has escalated the row even further by blocking the exit of Malaysian nationals, which Malaysia says amounts to hostage-taking:

North Korea barred Malaysians from leaving the country on Tuesday, sparking tit-for-tat action by Malaysia, as police investigating the murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur sought to question three men hiding in the North Korean embassy.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak accused North Korea of “effectively holding our citizens hostage” and held an emergency meeting of his National Security Council.

The moves underscored the dramatic deterioration in ties with one of North Korea’s few friends outside China since the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13.

Malaysia returned the favor after North Korea’s action, in line with the usual reciprocal action involving diplomatic relations. The two nations are on a trajectory toward war after decades of a rather close alignment, so much so that visa-free travel was possible between the two countries until last month’s clumsy and brutal assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the dissipated older brother of Kim Jong-un.

Just how stupid was this operation? The UN has concluded that Pyongyang used its close relations with Malaysia as a major artery for hard currency and evasion of international sanctions:

Malaysia, where VX nerve agent was used in the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, is one of the many transit points where, the report says, foreign nationals and entities conduct business through multinational financial centers that conceal financial activity by North Korea.

If that’s the case, why assassinate Kim Jong-nam there, and use a toxin that immediately points back to a state actor in the plot? (Why bother targeting Jong-nam at all is a question that will almost certainly never be satisfactorily answered, either.) There are numerous ways to kill a man without drawing attention to the method itself, including the option of making it look like a robbery gone bad. The Kim regime clearly wanted to send a message, but what message and to whom?

Even the experts are scratching their heads over this one:

Euan Graham, Director, International Security at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, called the latest events “a classic own goal of North Korea’s making”, triggered “by the most outrageous public murder than you can image, using a chemical weapon in a crowded international airport.

“You’d have to go back a long way for this kind of wholesale diplomatic meltdown.”

Hostage taking takes the meltdown to a new level. Even apart from the potential for war that exists when nations hold citizens of another sovereignty, it also eliminates any hope the Kim regime might have of regaining control over its sanctions-evasion channels in Malaysia for some time to come. Malaysia will likely seize businesses and assets of North Koreans in Malaysia if Pyongyang doesn’t come to its diplomatic senses soon, and it’s a sure bet that North Koreans won’t have the same range of action in Malaysia in the foreseeable future. Even if the Malaysia-North Korea crisis doesn’t go hot, it’s going to be a very, very cold relationship for a long time to come.

The Kim regime has burned its bridges with one of its few friends for no discernible rational reason. Its remaining friends have to be watching this and re-evaluating their own relationships with this gangster regime, including China.

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