Explaining North Korea’s mysterious response to the Kim Jong Nam assassination

North Korea – Malaysia relations are at an all-time low as the assassination of Kim Jong Nam creates hostility between the two nations. Malaysia has announced that the suspects involved in the case include a Vietnamese and an Indonesian woman, along with some North Korean males. Adding to the strain is that one of the male suspects named is a North Korean diplomat, or at least carries identification suggesting this. North Korea has shot back by alleging that Malaysia is coordinating with South Korea in a scheme to attack the reputation of the North.  
At a press conference on February 20, North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, said, “We cannot trust the investigation being conducted by the Malaysian police. There are lots of doubts surrounding the investigation, including whether the police are manipulating evidence to support the assertion that the female suspects were involved in the assassination.” These statements have been perceived as rude by the Malaysian authorities. 
A February 23 statement from the spokesperson of the North Korean Jurists Committee added further fuel to the fire by stating, “The biggest responsibility for his death rests with the government of Malaysia as the citizen of the DPRK died in its land.” The statement also decried the Malaysian authorities’ decision to perform multiple autopsies on the body, describing it as an “undisguised encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, a wanton human rights abuse and an act contrary to human ethics and morality.”
North Korea appears to be calling Malaysia’s integrity into question by alleging that the Malaysian government is somehow responsible for the murder, which occurred in broad daylight in an international airport. The Malaysian Prime Minister responded to the North Korean Ambassador’s allegations as, “a wholly inappropriate diplomatic offense.” Malaysia is currently considering the permanent withdrawal of their ambassador to North Korea. Suggestions are being raised within Malaysia’s political circles to consider severing their relationship with North Korea.   
How North Korea stands to lose in a fallout of relations with Malaysia
North Korea stands to lose proportionally more if a rupture in North Korea – Malaysia relations occurs. Trade with North Korea accounts for just 1/50,000th of Malaysia’s total trade, so a break in relations would have very little economic impact. Additionally, North Korea is already considered by many in the international community as a pariah state, and thus Malaysia is likely to face relatively few diplomatic repercussions. 
In contrast, the political fallout for North Korea would be significant and serve to increase the country’s isolation. The non-aligned Southeast Asian nations have provided an alternate alley for limited trade and cooperation with North Korea, and so the aftermath of a severance with Malaysia is likely to influence other countries in the region to reevaluate their relationships. It is being alleged that North Korean agents recruited Indonesian and Vietnamese females for the assassination, which has added further to the deterioration of North Korea’s public image. Until news of the incident broke, North Korea – Malaysia relations were relatively stable, as exemplified by the visa-free travel agreement between the two countries [which was terminated on March 2].
It is thought unlikely that Malaysia will choose to cut relations if North Korea moves towards appeasement. This is because once diplomatic relations between two countries are severed, it takes significant efforts to restore them. Interestingly, the North Korean government has been overtly provocative and aggressive in responding to developments relating to the assassination. 
North Korean diplomats have no choice but to take a firm line
North Korea’s response to the incident does appear to make much sense in a diplomatic context. However, when considered from the perspective of North Korea’s domestic politics, some clarity arises. Kim Jong Un is likely to feel sensitive and therefore impulsive in dealing with the incident, as the assassination was probably a result of his direct orders. He is also likely to be observing the aftermath closely. The North Korean Foreign Office spokesman and the North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia postponed action on this issue for considerable length of time, presumably waiting for clearer instructions from the leadership.
The North Korean diplomats are obviously being very careful with their actions. For these individuals, North Korea’s diplomatic relationship with Malaysia and the other Southeast Asian nations is almost trivial. These unfortunate individuals are most concerned with keeping themselves alive upon their recall to North Korea.
For North Korea’s diplomats abroad, there is very little room for a genuine belief in the national interest. These individuals must focus first and foremost on the safety of themselves and their extended family back home. As survivalism is prioritized over the national interest, the health of the nation is likely to continue to decline.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.