Moving forward, Malaysia must expedite its backdoor diplomacy with North Korea through China.

ANALYSTS observing the development in the Korean peninsula may agree that the latest military activity involving North Korea, South Korea and the United States is, to an extent, worrying.

In direct retaliation against the joint US-South Korea military exercise, known as Foal Eagle, North Korea, on March 6, fired four dry ballistic missiles.

Three landed 350km from coastal Japan. This is the closest landing yet to a US ally soil.

The US immediately deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea on March 8. On March 9, the US upped the ante by rejecting a Chinese proposal aimed at reducing tension in the Korean peninsula, saying all previous attempts to persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programme have failed and there was a need to find “new ways” to engage.

To be clear, this situation has occurred before. In March last year, in response to a US-South Korea military drill, North Korea warned that it could use a hydrogen bomb to vaporise Manhattan. The situation cooled down soon after.

However, what is worrying is the change in geopolitical context compared to what we had in 2016.

As one would predict, this involves the newly minted US president, Donald Trump, whose temperament is hard to pin down, and the increasingly unpredictable leadership style of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Trump has exhibited tendencies to be literal in his foreign policy execution. Jong-un, meanwhile, has shown himself to be increasingly anxious in consolidating his power in North Korea and broader East Asia.

The believed-to-be brazen daylight killing of his half-brother
in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest airports exhibits this point precisely.

Given the above, the question now is how much restraint do both leaders have, given the enormous complexity that is surrounding them.

China may have sensed this when it called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting annual military exercises, to prevent what is called a “head-on collision”.

I would not want to speculate that a war is looming, but, for practical reasons, Malaysia needs to study these political trends diligently when it comes to negotiating the release of our embassy staff.

Even with skirmishes that could occur in the region, the nine remaining lives in Pyongyang will be in a quandary.

Moving forward, Malaysia
must expedite its backdoor diplomacy with North Korea through China.

As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, Malaysia must not be shown to side any countries, pertinently from the Western hemisphere, on the issue.

On a different front, there is a need to seek a quid pro quo solution even though a crime has been committed at klia2. Malaysian laws must be applied without compromise.

However, the process itself must not be projected in a way that suggests Malaysia is punishing and shaming North Korea.

Instead, it must be on the singular nature of the crime that has been conducted. From a broader perspective, this may help smoothen the diplomatic process of saving our people in Pyongyang.

FEROOZE ALI

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,
Bangi, Selangor

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