Pyongyang still has some friends in ASEAN, for now

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
PHOTO: Reuters

Despite its recent belligerence, North Korea has some friends in South-east Asia, at least by the standards of the hermit state.

Cambodia, which recently allowed North Korea to design, build and operate a US$24 million (S$34 million) museum dedicated to Angkor history in Siem Reap, even banned the 2014 Hollywood film The Interview, which satirises North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Myanmar, highlighted in a 2014 United Nations report for possible involvement in arms-related co-operation with North Korea, similarly confiscated copies of The Interview from retailers.

Laos turned back nine North Korean defectors in 2013.

While the fallout over the Feb 13 murder of Mr Kim's estranged half-brother in Kuala Lumpur has left North Korea's erstwhile cosy relationship with Malaysia in tatters, its diplomatic ties with several other ASEAN nations remain intact.

Just 24 countries around the world have embassies in Pyong- yang. Five of them - Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia - are ASEAN member states.

North Korea maintains embassies in eight ASEAN countries except Brunei and the Philippines.

Read also: Pyongyang bans Malaysians from leaving North Korea: KCNA

Regional diplomats privately tell The Straits Times that these missions are under close watch for illicit activities, given longstanding allegations that they are used as bases to generate foreign exchange for the cash- strapped country.

A 2014 UN report detailed how North Korea was using sophisticated methods - including possibly involving its embassies - to evade sanctions. The document aired suspicions that North Korean embassies in Cuba and Singapore were used to facilitate an illicit shipment of fighter jets that were seized in Panama from a North Korean vessel in 2013.

It highlighted the involvement of a Singapore entity called Chinpo Shipping Company, which was "co-located" with the North Korean embassy in Singapore.

Read also: Malaysia says North Koreans not allowed to leave: Deputy PM

However, an embassy official, in response to queries posed later by Reuters news agency, said the embassy had moved.

In January last year, a Singapore court fined Chinpo $180,000.

Cambodia's cosy relations with North Korea stem from legacy.

Its late king Norodom Sihanouk was sheltered by the North's "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung during his country's civil war in the 1970s.

Pyongyang has also courted ASEAN nations to reduce its diplomatic isolation and economic dependence on China. In 2014, then foreign minister Ri Su Yong went on a tour of Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore.

Professor Park Sung Kwan, who specialises in international relations in South Korea's Kyungnam University, told The Straits Times: "Strategically, Indonesia and Vietnam are the important countries to North Korea because it understands that the two countries are the strongest nations in the region in terms of their political influence.

"Economically, Singapore and Thailand are very important because they trade with and supply daily necessities and electronic products to North Korea."

Latest available figures from the United Nations international trade statistics database show that Singapore exported US$28.3 million worth of items like tobacco, toiletries and electrical equipment to North Korea in 2015. Thailand exported US$73.8 million worth of products, including rubber and meat and fish preparations.

But the value of exports has fallen in recent years.

With stricter sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear tests, regional destinations that allow visa-free entry for its nationals are drying up.

Before Malaysia scrapped visa- free entry for North Koreans on Monday, Singapore removed the visa-free status in October last year, as part of efforts to implement fresh sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council that year.

This leaves just Vietnam, which grants visa exemptions to North Koreans on ordinary passports - but only for those on official visits.

As a bloc, ASEAN admitted North Korea to its flagship regional security meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, in 2000. But diplomats say it has long hesitated, considering North Korea's request to be elevated to the position of ASEAN dialogue partner, like the United States, China, India and South Korea are now.

The brazen murder of Mr Kim's half-brother Kim Jong Nam and North Korea's current behaviour in the region have made that possibility even more remote.

"If you are doing this to ASEAN, you are burning the bridge," one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Half-brother of N Korean leader assassinated in Malaysia

  • Doan Thi Huong, 28, from Vietnam, was surrounded by a heavy police presence as they were charged in a Kuala Lumpur court over the killing.
  • Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, was surrounded by a heavy police presence as they were charged in a Kuala Lumpur court over the killing.
  • Huong, also dressed casually, then heard the charge in Vietnamese.
  • Siti, wearing a red T-shirt, was brought in first to hear the murder charge read out before being taken away.
  • The handcuffed women were both told they faced the death penalty if found guilty.
  • Neither woman was asked to enter a plea and their trial is not expected to begin for several months.
  • Four suspects in the Kim Jong Nam murder: Malaysian Muhammad Farid Bin Jalaluddin (top L), Doan Thi Huong (top R) of Vietnam, North Korean Ri Jong Chol (bottom L) and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia (bottom R).
  • : A still image from a footage broadcast by Chinese state media which they say is believed to show the second woman (wearing yellow top) suspected of involvement in the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam.
  • Mystery woman: A CCTV screen grab showing a woman outside what looked like the airport, was circulated briefly after news broke last night that the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been killed in Malaysia. The picture fits the description of one of the two women believed to be North Korean spies, who had poisoned Kim Jong-nam during a brazen attack at KLIA2.
  • CCTV cameras at KLIA2 have captured a clearer image of a woman believed to be one of the assassins who killed Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
  • The image zooms in on the alleged killer's features, depicting her to be middle-aged and of Asian descent.
  • In the grainy image, she can be seen wearing a top with the word "LOL" in large letters and a blue short skirt, with her right hand over a small sling handbag.
  • North Korea embassy officials leave the morgue at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital where Kim Jong Nam's body is held for autopsy in Malaysia.
  • Jong-nam, 45, died after he was attacked at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2) on Monday.
  • He is believed to have been attacked by two female agents who splashed his face with a chemical at the airport's departure hall at about 9am on Monday.
  • A statement confirming the death from the Royal Malaysia Police force.
  • Three cars belonging to the North Korean embassy were seen in the compound of the mortuary at Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL). At least two of the cars were parked inside the compound while the third was seen parked outside with a police patrol car parked behind it. The cars had diplomatic number plates, one of which was 28-35-DC.
  • Occupants of the cars were at the mortuary where a post-mortem on the body of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was being carried out.
  • North Korean female agents operating in Malaysia have reportedly assassinated the half-brother of the North's leader, Kim Jong-Un - a one-time heir apparent who became a critic of the Stalinist regime.
  • South Korean media said Tuesday that Kim Jong-Nam was killed with poisoned needles at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Officials in Seoul and the Malaysian capital could not confirm his death.
  • Malaysian police said in a statement late Tuesday that a North Korean man, identified as Kim Chol, sought medical assistance at the airport and died on the way to hospital.
  • South Korean media said Jong-Nam had travelled using a fake passport under the name of Kim Chol.
  • If confirmed, it would be the highest-profile death under the Jong-Un regime since the execution of the leader's uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
  • Jong-Un has been trying to strengthen his grip on power in the face of growing international pressure over his country's nuclear and missile programmes. He has reportedly staged a series of executions. The latest launch of a new intermediate-range missile on Sunday brought UN Security Council condemnation and vows of a strong response from US President Donald Trump.
  • South Korea's national news agency Yonhap quoted a source as saying agents of the North's spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, carried out the assassination on Monday by taking advantage of a security loophole between Jong-Nam's bodyguards and Malaysian police at the airport.
  • Malaysian private security guards stand guard outside the Forensics department at Putrajaya Hospital in Putrajaya on February 14, 2017, where the body of a North Korean man suspected to be Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is believed to be kept.
  • The 45-year-old was killed by two unidentified females wielding poisoned needles at the airport, according to South Korean broadcaster TV Chosun.
  • It said the women hailed a cab and fled immediately afterwards. Jong-Nam, the eldest son of former leader Kim Jong-Il, was once seen as heir apparent but fell out of favour following an embarrassing botched attempt in 2001 to enter Japan on a forged passport and visit Disneyland. He has since lived in virtual exile, mainly in the Chinese territory of Macau.
  • A pedestrian walks in front of a clinic where a North Korean man suspected to be Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is believed had been taken at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA 2) in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur on February 14, 2017.
  • His half-brother took over as leader when their father died in December 2011. Jong-Nam, known as an advocate of reform in the North, once told a Japanese newspaper that he opposed his country's dynastic system of power.
  • He was reportedly close to his uncle Song-Thaek, once the North's unofficial number two and political mentor of the current leader. Cheong Seong-Jang, senior researcher at Seoul's Sejong Institute think-tank, said Jong-Nam had been living in near-exile so it was unlikely that Jong-Un saw him as a potential competitor for power.
  • Policemen stand outside the morgue at Putrajaya hospital in Malaysia February 15, 2017.
  • In 2014, Jong-Nam was reported to be in Indonesia - sighted at an Italian restaurant in Jakarta - and was said to be shuttling back and forth between Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and France.
  • N Korean officials scuffle with media outside the KL hospital.
  • N Korean officials speaking to Malaysian authorities.
  • The Korean restaurant along Tanjong Pagar road where Kim Jong Nam was said to have dined in when he was spotted in Singapore in 2014.

This article was first published on Mar 09, 2017.
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