Malaysia and DPRK - Back to Putrajaya from teh tarik in Pyongyang

The Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang has always treated us kindly. From sharing with us home-brewed Teh Tarik to home-cooked Mee Rebus, the few times we have met with them has been one of rich hospitality. The diplomats we met there seemed to enjoy their stay in the DPRK, despite the hardship nature of the posting. While not a particularly active relationship, it was cordial with party to party, government to government and some limited economic and cultural exchanges.

Most notably, Malaysians are the only Southeast Asian citizens who enjoy visa-free entry into North Korea - maybe the only passport holders in the world with that arrangement. Our other volunteer workshop leaders from across the region, Singapore-included, have always needed visas (we cannot vouch for Laos having never had volunteers from there). This fact is little-known to North Koreans too.

When our first ever Malaysian volunteer visited in 2010 for our inaugural workshop on economics, our North Korean hosts were frantic when their Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed to issue a visa three days before we were to arrive. They managed to find out just before the trip that Malaysians do not actually need a visa to enter their country. And our skeptical volunteer eventually made the trip and had a great time teaching university professors setting up a new college.

Malaysia’s ties to the DPRK go back to the non-aligned movement days. Both countries positioned themselves as independent actors in a bipolar world. This shared positioning may have contributed to Malaysia’s special visa privileges. Malaysia has consistently been sympathetic towards North Korea’s isolated position, and has invited Korean party officials to UMNO Congresses and for other exchanges. Kuala Lumpur has also seen itself as a positive actor in the DPRK's relations with the rest of the world, hosting multiple US-DPRK talks since the 1990s.

In this context, it is surprising to see what has been a generations-long stable relationship rapidly deteriorate over the past two weeks. North Korea has actively and loudly accused Malaysia of a biased investigation. Malaysia has recalled their ambassador to Pyongyang. It wouldn't be surprising if Malaysia expelled North Korean diplomats, guest workers and instituted a visa requirement for entry.

More importantly, the dispute could turn a Southeast Asia that has been sympathetic to North Korea’s isolation and unfavorable geopolitical situation against the country. Trade and business will suffer and even much-needed cultural, technical and educational exchanges may face new restrictions. It seems like a wrecking ball has been taken to old relationships, as a message to the world that North Korea does not need or want them.