KUALA LUMPUR: North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur has become ground zero in its high-profile diplomatic row with Malaysia over the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, providing a rare glimpse into the workings of the reclusive regime.
On Saturday Malaysia gave the North’s ambassador 48 hours to leave the country, the latest blow to a relationship that has rapidly worsened since the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader was assassinated.
The murder, carried out with the nerve agency VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13, and the subsequent dispute have pushed Pyongyang’s usually determinedly low-profile diplomats into the spotlight.
South Korea says the North’s regime ordered the killing and Malaysia has named several North Koreans as suspects, although four of them left the country on the day of the killing.
There has been intense media speculation that two of the suspects may be hiding inside the embassy. Pyongyang’s envoys meanwhile have blasted Malaysia’s investigation as biased and demanded the return of the body.
On Friday police issued an arrest warrant for one of the men believed holed up in the embassy, a North Korean airline employee. They also requested that the other, the second secretary at the mission, assist the probe.
“They (the suspects) could be in the North Korean embassy as it is the safest place against questioning or possible arrest,” a senior government official, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
The embassy, a two-story neo-colonial house with a North Korean flag fluttering defiantly, is situated in Kuala Lumpur’s well-heeled Bukit Damansara area known for its hipster cafes and restaurants.
For three weeks international media have been camped outside, awaiting the next doorstep statement and watching the comings and goings of black embassy cars and deliveries of ginseng chicken soup.
“This is extremely rare for a North Korean embassy to be in the spotlight because Pyongyang is usually low-profile,” said Dr Roy Rogers, from the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya.
Malaysia formally established diplomatic relations with North Korea in the boom years of the 1970s.
“North Korea, despite its reclusiveness is part of the Non-Aligned Movement and Malaysia was trying to be a leader among developing countries,” Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst with the Merdeka CentER think tank, told AFP.
“Malaysia tried to have a diplomatic footprint larger than its actual size,” he added.
As long ago as 2000 the United States and North Korea held abortive talks in the Malaysian capital on curbing the North’s missile program.
Pyongyang opened its embassy in 2003, providing a conduit between it and the wider world, with Kuala Lumpur serving as a discreet meeting place for talks with Washington.
Last October former US diplomats held closed-door talks with senior Pyongyang officials in the city.
There were also more covert operations.
A recent report by a UN Panel of Experts, identifying a front company run by North Korean intelligence out of Malaysia, exposed Kuala Lumpur to criticism that it had been naive in its dealings with Pyongyang.
“I don’t think (Malaysian authorities) were naive. They should know what the North Koreans are doing in the country. They let it slip,” said Faisal Hazis, head of the Asian Studies Center at the National University of Malaysia.
The Vienna Convention of 1961 grants diplomats and embassies protection, and some believe the suspects will use this to avoid prosecution or arrest if they are in the embassy.
“It potentially can become like the Assange case,” said Ibrahim, referring to Julian Assange, the founder of the secret-spilling Wikileaks website, who has found refuge at the Ecuadoran embassy in London since 2012.
“A lot depends on Malaysian authorities’ patience,” he added.
Malaysia is now hardening its stance. With the ambassador’s expulsion order and the cancellation of a rare visa-free travel deal with North Korea, it is edging close to severing diplomatic ties.
“We are closer but not equal to severing ties,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“If they continue to make baseless accusations, refuse to cooperate with the investigations, or the investigations conclude that the assassination was state-sponsored, then indeed it could get worse diplomatically,” he added.