N Korea likely to retaliate on visa-free removal, experts say

N Korea likely to retaliate on visa-free removal, experts say
The North Korean flag seen past the barbed-wire fenced wall of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
PHOTO: AFP

North Korea is likely to revoke Malaysia's visa-free travel status in a tit-for-tat move following Malaysia's decision to impose a new visa application process for North Korean visitors, say experts.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) senior lecturer Dr Hoo Chiew Ping, who is an expert on North Korea, said it is "highly likely" that the country would retaliate by revoking Malaysia's visa-free travel.

UKM deputy director Dr Sufian Jusof, who specialises in international and economic law, agreed but added that it is not a loss for Malaysia as independent travel is not allowed within North Korea.

"Malaysians have visa-free entry but it is not really free because we have to go through a tour group. North Koreans do not need to go through an organised tour to come to Malaysia."

"So although we might call it visa-free, it is not really free," he said.

Read also: N Korea fires unidentified projectile from near missile base: S Korea

Universiti Malaya (UM) senior lecturer Dr Geetha Govindasamy said she also expects that the North Koreans will get even in some form, though it remains to be seen what action will be taken.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced earlier this week that Malaysia was cancelling North Korea's visa-free entry to Malaysia, citing "national security reasons."

The move came as diplomatic relations between the two countries soured following the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Read also: Visa requirement for N. Koreans the right move, say analysts

He was killed after two women splashed a chemical on his face at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2) departure hall on Feb 13.

The two women, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong and Indonesian Siti Aisyah, have been charged with the murder under Section 302 of the Penal Code, which carries the mandatory death penalty upon conviction.

North Korea has criticised how Malaysia has investigated the murder and has accused it of being part of a conspiracy, leading to Wisma Putra declaring its ambassador Kang Chol persona non grata and giving him until March 6 to leave the country.

Malaysia is the only country North Korea has fully opened its doors to. In 2009, Malaysian passport holders became the only visitors who could travel to the country without a visa for up to 30 days.

Similarly, North Koreans travelling to Malaysia were given visa-free entry. This will change starting March 6, when the new visa application process is gazetted.

The new measure will not have an immediate impact on the 1,000-odd North Koreans currently living in Malaysia. They reportedly work in coalmines, restaurants, and trading companies.

Read also: Privilege and peril for North Korea's first family

"Those who are working here have work permits and won't have any problems.

"The problem will arise once their work permits expire, and (depend on) whether the Malaysian Government introduces a more stringent screening process for work permits," said Dr Sufian.

"I'm sure after this, their application to stay in Malaysia would be subjected to much stricter processes," he added.

The new visa requirements might also slow down trade deals between the two countries, but the impact on economic and bilateral relations will be minimal, the experts said.

"I doubt it will affect North Korea's economy," said Dr Geetha.

"However, illicit activities that generate income or allow them to obtain hard cash will certainly be affected with new restrictions imposed by Malaysia," she added.

North Koreans are not allowed to travel freely without the regime's permission. Those who have access to international travel are likely to have links with the government.

Apart from diplomatic staff and families, Amnesty International has reported that some 50,000 North Koreans work abroad.

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