THE latest episode in the saga involving the death of the prominent North Korean Kim Jong Nam has evolved into a ban of Malaysian diplomats in Pyongyang from leaving the reclusive country. This shocking act breaching all diplomatic protocols came after a series of diplomatic maneuvers from both sides. As the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia began spewing spiteful and unbelievable words shortly after Kim’s death, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned him to explain himself. Shortly after, Malaysia recalled its own envoy to North Korea “for consultation”. As the North Korean side did not seem to be willing to rest their hyperbolic “case,” Malaysia cancelled the visa-free privilege for North Koreans to enter Malaysia.
Malaysia is understandably upset with the North Korean very imaginative accusations (totally unacceptable to the mainstream international community) that Malaysia had conspired with some other powers in dealing with this uncalled for mysterious deadly incident. As such, when the North Korean ambassador refused to present himself when summoned by the Malaysian MFA again, he was declared persona non grata, and given 48 hours to leave the country, which he eventually did.
This was the first time in memory that Malaysia has expelled a foreign ambassador, so the MFA gave a brief lesson on international diplomacy in its press statement. It explained persona non grata as literally meaning “person not appreciated” and is barred from remaining in the country, as it is the most serious form of disapproval that the country can apply to foreign diplomats, and is also often used to express disapproval at the conduct or policies of the country sending the diplomat. Seemingly acting on the diplomatic principle of reciprocity, North Korea also correspondingly declared the Malaysian ambassador there as persona non grata (which was moot as the latter had been recalled earlier). Ironically, this was perhaps the single act by the North Korean side during this whole saga that could remotely be counted as diplomatic.
Declaring a diplomat as persona non grata is enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, but the principle has always been practiced in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Even when two countries are at war, the custom has always been that their envoys should not be harmed or detained. The curious questions which arise are, what types of diplomats are usually “not appreciated,” or at least what conduct or words of his would trigger such a declaration? The Vienna Convention states that the declaring state does not have to provide any reason for doing so. In the present case, Malaysia chose to provide reasons for the ambassadorial expulsion. But usually the declaring state would simply say something like the diplomat concerned “engaged in activities incompatible with his diplomatic status”. Well, such a reason can be both very inclusive and rather interesting.
For one, it can simply mean the diplomat has done something which violates local law (despite his diplomatic immunity) or cultural norms. I recall when I was working for an international organization, I heard of the case of a famously neutral developed country which, knowing that it would at least be inappropriate to do so but eager to show off its own social diversity, chose to send to a famously socially and religiously conservative country a rather “avant garde” ambassador. As could be expected, the ambassador publicly displayed some “avant garde” act which would have been normal back home but was decidedly considered blasphemy in the receiving country, which promptly declared the ambassador persona non grata.
But more often, “activities incompatible with diplomatic status” have more to do with espionage or intelligence gathering. During the Cold War, when the Eastern and Western camps confronted each other, from time to time espionage networks would be discovered in certain countries, usually run by agents with diplomatic covers. These agents would typically be declared persona non grata and expelled. The other side would typically also kick out a similar number of diplomats from the original expelling state as a sort of diplomatic revenge, although the latter group may or may not have engaged in similar espionage activities.
Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this sort of spy war still takes places primarily between the US and Russia. Around Christmas time last year, US President Obama expelled a few dozen Russian diplomats, accusing them of interfering in the US presidential election. But Russian President Putin chose not to retaliate in kind, and opted to wait and see if the incoming Trump administration would pursue a different set of Russia policies.
As of now, the previously unthinkable spat between Malaysia and North Korea has deteriorated into one of essentially hostage-taking by the latter. Nevertheless, which necessitates a certain degree of adroitness in its handling of the often unpredictable situation, Malaysia must stand firm on its grounds, which are well accepted by the mainstream of the international community.