North Korea now even more lonely

North Korea had some bilateral ties with Malaysia. But following the death of Kim Jong-nam, all that is now at risk.


The death of Kim Jong-nam has caused a diplomatic rift
(Image credit: 2001 The Asahi Shimbun)

North Korea could count on few friends even before the apparent poisoning of leader Kim Jong-un's older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport on 13 February, says the Daily Mail. The "fallout" is likely further to isolate the nuclear-armed state. Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur enjoy some bilateral trade and citizens can travel to each other's countries under a "unique" reciprocal visa deal. Malaysia has also facilitated North Korea's links with the outside world. All that is now at risk.

Malaysia has recalled its ambassador to Pyongyang and officially reprimanded Kang Chol, the North Korean envoy to Kuala Lumpur, for saying that his country would "categorically reject the result of the post-mortem", says Richard Lloyd Parry inThe Times. Chol accused Malaysia of "colluding with hostile forces" and said that its failure to hand over the body implied a cover-up.

Malaysian police have so far arrested four people, and are trying to trace four other North Korean men. The South Korean prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, endorsed his country's intelligence agency's verdict that the attack was carried out by the North Korean government.

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Although there were "no signs" that Kim Jong-nam, 45, harboured ambitions to return home or had "encouraged the overthrow of the current regime", Kim Jong-un could never "escape the assumption by many outsiders" that if his dictatorship was deposed, his older half-brother might be "tapped to lead a transition to a free, democratic North Korea", says Alastair Gale in The New York Times. Since taking power in 2011, South Korean authorities estimate that Kim Jong-un has "purged" more than 100 senior officials and ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, who was close to Kim Jong-nam.

This could test "Beijing's patience with Pyongyang... like never before", says the Financial Times. A resident of Macau, Kim Jong-nam was under Chinese protection and was believed to have been "harboured by Beijing as a potential alternative" to Kim Jong-un. Yet the status quo "beats the prospect" of the collapse of North Korea, which could see millions of refugees stream into China.

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.