A case of truth and confidence

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EI SUN OH

A CERTAIN Kim Jong Nam from North Korea who, shall we say, possessed a very special family background, died at a Malaysian airport under suspicious and highly disturbing circumstances, causing an international uproar. Over the past three weeks or so, the ongoing investigation into Kim’s death also shed light on the otherwise low-key interactions between Malaysia and North Korea. The diplomatic relations between the two countries also face severe challenges.

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From the Malaysian perspective, ever since this sudden, uncalled-for event took place, the way and process by which the Malaysian authorities handled the investigations, though perhaps not entirely perfect, were in general in full adherence to the widely accepted relevant international practices, and in accordance with Malaysia’s own laws and regulations, which incidentally are not peculiar to Malaysia but similar to many others among the British Commonwealth of nations.

With the rare but notable exception of North Korea incessantly making various outlandish accusations which perhaps only they themselves would believe, virtually no responsible party in the mainstream international community has tendered any allegation of Malaysia having grossly mishandled the investigation into this highly intriguing case.

As to the impartiality of the investigation process, it should be plain for all to see that when the Malaysian authorities were convinced that they possessed sufficient preliminary evidence, they went ahead and charged with murder the two female suspects who were arrested shortly after Kim’s death. But when at the same time they reviewed the evidence and found it insufficient to charge another North Korean suspect, they decided not to press charges, but only deported him for overstaying his work visa. If, as was “imaginatively” accused by North Korea, Malaysia was in conspiracy with some foreign powers to try to implicate North Korea in this case, then why would Malaysia not simply and hastily slap some unfounded charges on the North Korean suspect?

Of course, Malaysia should not be overly complacent about the trust that the international community has given its stance and capabilities. This is especially so when dealing with a case which was, in a sense, ruthlessly lobbed at Malaysia unprovoked. The right and wrong in this case, although as yet not fully solved, is frankly plain for all to see. The various self-serving and shocking allegations made by the North Korean side, as well as their highly uncooperative attitude when it came to assisting in the investigation—for example, their refusal to extradite the four North Korean suspects who have fled home and to waive the diplomatic immunity of their second secretary wanted by the Malaysian authorities in connection with this case but who continues to hole up in their embassy in Kuala Lumpur—speak volumes about their recalcitrance. The mainstream international community cannot be blamed for alienating them over this.

Accordingly, Malaysia’s various internationally widely accepted diplomatic moves are in proportion to their various antics. After the North Korean ambassador first made his shocking accusations, he was summoned to explain himself at the Malaysian foreign affairs ministry. This is a standard and relatively mild diplomatic practice for a receiving state to express its displeasure on conduct which is incompatible with diplomatic status. When the North Korean side continued to be oblivious to the opinion of the international community in bashing Malaysia, the latter recalled its ambassador to Pyongyang “for consultation,” which was an even stronger gesture of diplomatic displeasure. Malaysia also revoked the visa-free status for North Korean nationals to travel to Malaysia.

And when the North Korean ambassador failed to present himself when summoned again by the Malaysian foreign affairs ministry, he was declared “persona non grata” and asked to leave Malaysia in 48 hours. As this was the first time that Malaysia has ever expelled an ambassador, the statement to this effect took pains to essentially conduct a lesson for press and public on this standard diplomatic practice under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, even explaining the meaning of the Latin phrase as “person not appreciated”. North Korea retaliated by similarly declaring the Malaysian ambassador there (who had already left) persona non grata which, perversely speaking, was the only conventional diplomatic custom that they have so far exhibited in the course of this case.

Frankly speaking, what I worry about most in this case is not the diplomatic squabble between the two countries. North Korea, being shunned by most nations in the world and with an essentially dysfunctional economy, is definitely not a diplomatic or economic priority for Malaysia. Severing formal ties with them has next to no appreciable effect on either Malaysia’s economic or international standing (it might actually enhance the latter). The converse is definitely not the same, as Malaysia has been one of North Korea’s very few windows to the rest of the world.

What I am most concerned with is Malaysia’s predicament henceforth, lest it lapses into some sort of spy heaven a la James Bond movies, whereby various ambitious countries from around the world do not hesitate to “take care” of their touchy matters on Malaysian soil, often in a violent manner as in this case. Malaysia must further strengthen the spirit and practice of the rule of law, such that it continues to inspire confidence in the mainstream international community as to its resolve and ability to handle internationally influential and complex cases and events.

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