WE live in a world and a region where idealism is fine but realism is often a necessity. As we are all but one tiny species living in a rather fragile planet, ideally we should of course set aside our often artificially constructed differences and try to work together to advance the precarious fate of both ourselves and our precious planet. The strong should help the weak, the rich extend a hand to the poor, and so on. In reality, of course, things as they happen are very much the opposite. The strong often crushes the weak, the rich steps on the poor, and so on. Jungle rules prevail. And the ruthless and the unscrupulous often triumph over the hapless and the principled.
And so is perhaps the case with the latest development in the evolving saga between Malaysia and North Korea in the aftermath of the death of Kim Jong Nam. From the outset, Malaysia chose to stick with the preference for the rule of law in its insistence on proper investigative procedure on the “mysterious” death, and with the choice for internationally accepted norms of diplomacy, such as summoning (following Malaysia’s being wildly accused) and later expulsion (after the recalcitrant response) of the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, and the recalling of Malaysia’s own ambassador to Pyongyang.
North Korea, on the other hand, assumed a most belligerent attitude in accusing Malaysia of having colluded with foreign powers to harm North Korea’s interests. Woe be the day when a moderately major economic power like Malaysia has to stoop so low as to even notice what the minuscule interests of a universally condemned pariah state are. And of course, things would get much worse. After Malaysia’s expulsion of its ambassador, North Korea prevented at first 11 and later nine Malaysians with diplomatic status from leaving the reclusive country, essentially holding them hostage.
The holding of hostages by a state or its agents is of course not a new phenomenon on the international stage. The then newly theocratic Iranian authority did it when it instigated the rounding up of American embassy personnel by “student activists” in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. It took more than a year of secret but intense negotiations spanning over two American presidential administrations (Carter’s and Reagan’s) before the hostages were released. The sticking point, I suspect, was not so much that the US was not willing to hand over the ailing (later dead), exiled former Shah of Iran to the newly empowered Iranian revolutionaries. It was perhaps rather that US would not like to be publicly seen as kowtowing to the Iranian demands, as that would violate the avowed US policy of not negotiating with terrorists or hostage takers, for fear that doing so would encourage and embolden more such similar acts. At least that was the ideal. The reality, of course, has always been that you have essentially no choice (the US military rescue attempts failed miserably) but to negotiate with such despicable parties. The end results are often the same, namely the release of the hostages in return for some concessions, but by trying to pitifully masquerade the “trade,” you often prolong the sufferings of the hostages much too unnecessarily.
A decade later, on the eve of the US-led multinational coalition’s invasion of Iraq over the latter’s blatant annexation of Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein pulled the unthinkable and detained all Westerners in Iraq, essentially using them as so-called “human shields”. Perhaps just to make a dramatic point, Saddam arranged for representatives of these Western detainees to have an audience with him in one of his many splendid palaces. He even ruffled the blonde hair of a boyish Western hostage for the benefit of a worldwide television audience. And again this time, negotiations between Iraq and the Western powers did take place, albeit through neutral international intermediaries. The human shields were eventually released.
It is in line with this sort of realistic practice and expectations in the face of adverse, despicable acts by rogue states that Malaysia openly agreed to enter into negotiations with North Korea over the release of the Pyongyang Nine. Understandably for the ever realistic Malaysians, the expeditious return of the Pyongyang Nine was of utmost importance, and that was accomplished, presumably in exchange for granting certain North Korean demands. Was Malaysia caught by surprise by North Korea’s essentially hostage-holding behavior? Absolutely, in the same way that the US was caught in similar predicaments in 1979 Iran and 1990 Iraq. The difference was of course that Malaysia did not hesitate in quickly engaging the North Koreans directly, while the US dithered in the Iranian crisis, and used intermediaries in the Iraqi crisis.
Ideals in international affairs are lofty but also tall orders. The reality is such that you have to deal with all sorts of rogue players, some more ruthless than others. It’s a jungle out there.