Malaysia and North Korea seemed to have ended their diplomatic row, which was sparked by Kuala Lumpur’s investigation into the brutal murder of Kim Jong-Nam, the estranged older half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
On February 13, Kim Jong-Nam was killed with a lethal nerve agent VX while he was at the Kuala Lumpur airport, waiting for a plane to Macau. Malaysian authorities believed Pyongyang was involved in the murder, and so sought 7 North Korean suspects, including 3 whom they believed were in the custody of the North Korean embassy.
The probe led to the two countries expelling each other’s ambassadors. They have also prevented each others’ citizens from leaving the country. It was only after the body of Kim Jong-Nam was returned to North Korea, that both countries lifted travel bans.
Sankei Shimbun’s Singapore Bureau Chief Hideki Yoshimura sat down with former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday, April 5, to discuss how he thinks the Malaysian government should have handled the Kim Jong-Nam case, and how this affects his country’s relations with North Korea.
SS: We know that 9 Malaysians were released safely from Pyongyang in exchange for 3 North Koreans and the body of Kim Jong-Nam, even though North Korea has not admitted that the body was belongs to him. There are four other suspects, whom Malaysian police says appear to be in North Korea, but the Inspector General of the Police says there is no reply from Pyongyang to support the investigation. Did the Malaysian police or Malaysian government handle this well? Do you think that they could have done something better?
Dr. Mahathir: This is something very unusual, not something that the Malaysian government or Malaysians are familiar with. We really do not know how to handle this. So the first reaction was, of course, to look at the criminal issue.
The person was killed and therefore a murder has been committed. As in the cases of murder in Malaysia, there will be an investigation as to how it happened and the causes and all that. And then, of course, they discovered that this man is actually the brother of the leader of North Korea, which is very embarrassing but then…. So they don’t want to be involved in any confrontation with North Korea. On the other hand, this thing happened in Malaysia. It is a criminal act. So that is why they made conflicting statements, by different government agencies.
The police are interested in the criminal act, but the Minister of Foreign Affairs is interested in the relations between Malaysia and North Korea. Generally we are friendly toward all countries. So how do you handle this and not hurt the good relations that we want to have with North Korea as we are with all other countries? So I think that there’s been some early statement which contradicted with the later statement. I think on the whole the Prime Minister has said that this will not break the diplomatic relations.
As far as the detention of our staff is concerned, we would like them to release, and I think we ourselves are not keen on detaining any North Korean. We want them to go back. Unless, of course, it is clear that they are involved in any crime. So the situation is very confusing that you cannot expect the Malaysian government to have a standard answer to all the things that is happening.
SS: In the opinion of some, the North Korean side did not seem to be very friendly to Malaysia, so Malaysia could have pushed the situation. What do you think of this opinion?
Dr. Mahathir: Obviously North Korea does not want to make this thing appear to be an assassination of the brother of the leader. They would like to think and to show to the world that this has got nothing to do with the politics in North Korea. But by the time they took that stand, Malaysia had already said that this was the brother of the leader of North Korea.
Naturally they got very unhappy with the statement made by Malaysia. So now, they still want to maintain that this is not the brother of the leader and he is an ordinary North Korean and they do not want to accept the body back as the brother of the leader. I mean that was what they want to present to the world.
We, of course, do not know what their politics are. We are just concerned about the crime that was committed in Malaysia.
SS: So if this assassination was by North Korea, why do you think they picked Malaysia or the KLIA to carry it out?
Dr. Mahathir: Well, Malaysia is a very open country. Lots of people come to Malaysia. We’ve got almost 29 million tourists coming here. So people come and go from Malaysia very freely. In the case of North Korea, no visa is required. So North Koreans find it one of those countries where they can go to easily without having to get visa and so on.
I suppose that is one of the reasons this man chose to be in Malaysia because he could leave Malaysia. The thing is they can go to Hong Kong or Macau or places which will accept you.
It happened in Malaysia because it provides a very convenient place for this assassination to be carried out. That is all. It could have been in Hong Kong or Macau but Malaysia you know, millions of tourists especially in here, KLIA2. Every day tens and thousands of people pass through here. So it’s very easy to just get lost in the crowd.
I think many people come to Malaysia who may have the wrong intention. We were accused, for example, [because] the people who attacked the twin towers in New York were also in Malaysia.
We are a trading nation and we are encouraging tourism and we even give visa free and we also offer “Malaysia as your second home” program, where people can come and live here —all kinds of friendly policies to make Malaysia very popular.
SS: You just mentioned, when you were the Prime Minister, under your administration, North Koreans visited Malaysia without visas and vice versa. I think this is the first case for North Korea. Why did Malaysia develop a very close relationship with North Korea? And why did you decide in 2000 to make it visa-free for North Korea?
Dr. Mahathir: We wanted to encourage tourism. Having visa is one obstacle for free travel. In the case of North Korea, most other countries did not welcome North Korea [at the time]. But Malaysia wanted to be friends with all countries.
Many countries got visa-free entry to Malaysia. So putting North Korea among the countries is a normal thing for us. But for North Korea it is very special because North Koreans could not go to many countries. Only to Malaysia is easy. No visa. So they tend to come here.
SS: So North Korea is not a special case?
Dr. Mahathir: For Malaysia it is not a special case. But for North Korea, it is special because most countries would not like North Koreans to visit their countries.
SS: One more thing, in Kedah there’s a rice museum. There are some reports that some North Korean painters made art there. That was around the year 2000. This shows that relationship between Malaysia and North Korea was more aggressive. When you were in charge, did you pay any extra attention to North Korea?
Dr. Mahathir: No, no, nothing. The thing is that I know North Korean painters were available and I think they are relatively cheaper from other countries and some business people also invited them to do wall painting.
For example very close here is the Country Heights development. They have a big wall and they asked these Korean painters to paint, and I think from there the Kedah announced the government was looking for painters. It offered the job to the North Koreans.
SS: So it was a coincidence?
Dr. Mahathir: Yes. The thing is, we are not against North Korea. We are not at war with them. We are merely having a relationship with them as we [have] with all other countries.
SS: My next question is about the two women – one Indonesian and one Vietnamese. They were arrested and will be on trial for the murder [of Kim Jong-Nam]. Some media said the two were just used. They want the charge to be reduced. As a former ASEAN leader, how do you think the issue should be handled?
Dr. Mahathir: Well, the fact is that, we know they were involved in the crime and the normal law against such a crime operates in Malaysia. They are being given an open trial. They can state that they were cheated, but it is up to them to prove. But as far as Malaysia is concerned, a man was killed and obviously they were the ones who killed him, therefore it is a murder case and it must be under the law for murder.
But once it goes to the court, if they can prove that they didn’t think they murdered anybody, then it is up to them. It is not a judgement day. It is a charge. On the surface this murder was done by them. So the police must charge them. How they came to murder, now it is up to them [to prove]. The fact is, the man was killed and they were identified as the killers. So once you know who the killers are, they must be charged with murder.
SS: This morning North Korea launched another ballistic missile and soon, in a couple of days, [China’s] Mr. Xi is visiting [the United States’] Mr. Trump for the first time. How do you see that national security issue around North Korea?
Dr. Mahathir: Well, we have a leader in North Korea who is not behaving as what we expect a leader should behave. On the other hand, we see the leader of America also behaving in an unusual manner. These leaders make decisions. They make decisions which are bad for themselves and for the world.
At one time there was Hitler. He wanted to conquer the world. This kind of leader does come out every now and again. Of course, North Korea has Kim II-Sung and the son, and each has got a different policy. This is a policy of Kim Jong-Un and he is even accused of killing his uncle and all that.
So this is very unusual kind of leader. But, normally, other countries cannot change the leaders of another country. We don’t like him, but we can’t change as much as we couldn’t replace Hitler with a friendly chancellor and something like that. That happens in their country and the end result is the war.
So far as long as the man is accepted as the leader by the North Koreans, we have to accept that. He can be irrational, he likes to show off his strength, his power, he can fire rockets and make nuclear weapons, and so on.
To me, I lived through Hitler period. The same thing was happening in Hitler’s time. To us he is irrational, but to his own people maybe they have to accept. They can’t do anything. They can’t overthrow him.
SS: What should the international community do?
Dr. Mahathir: They should try to solve the problem as fast as possible before going to war. Because if they are going to war, all the countries and the whole world will be involved. So people must learn how to handle this. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail. Again, with reference to the emergence of Hitler at that time, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Britain, went to see him and said peace in our time. They announced. In the end they had to go to war.
So these are things that happen which we sometimes cannot handle. Maybe there would be war. Maybe there would be nuclear war because we are dealing with leaders of nations and leaders can be irrational.
SS: You are saying Japan should put more energy into diplomatic negotiations, but things are escalating. Do you have any advice for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?
Dr. Mahathir: I still think Japan should try and make some contact with North Korea and explain to them the need for peace, because if North Korea fires the nuclear weapon, the other nuclear powers may drop nuclear bombs in North Korea and kill a lot of people. But today, the bombs, as you know, spread to many other countries, like China, for example. China obviously is afraid of this kind of war with North Korea and the United States. I think both China and the United States and Japan must exert any effort to stop North Korea from the destruction of their own country as well as its rival.
(Click here to read the article in Japanese)