Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain, counsellor at Malaysia's embassy in Pyongyang, hugs members of his family as he returns home from Pyongyang, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia March 31, 2017. REUTERS

Putrajaya’s tit-for-tat instrumental to the success of negotiations

MALAYSIANS held hostage by, firstly, a hermit, rogue nation and, secondly, Abu Sayyaf terrorists, have come home safely in recent days. From Pyongyang, North Korea, families from Malaysia’s diplomatic mission there were released after intense negotiations between Wisma Putra and its North Korean counterparts. Meanwhile, those held captive for over eight months by the Abu Sayyaf in southern Philippines, under threat of death on a daily basis, were rescued by the Philippines security forces under orders from their president to “wipe out” the terrorists using “full force”. Pivotal to both successes is the diplomatic relations Malaysia has developed with the Philippines and North Korea, proving that the country has an effective foreign policy under the stewardship of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

While the Philippines, as a sister Asean nation, can be expected to be friendly with Malaysia, North Korea is, tactically, more complex. With a reputation for being gung-ho, a go-it-alone foreign policy if need be, Pyongyang challenges the international norms of diplomacy and law, almost begging to be isolated by the international community. Indeed, the even-keeled bilateral relations with Pyongyang has soured somewhat, as a result of the suspected murder of the North Korean leader’s estranged half-brother at klia2 in February and the resulting controversy. Even until the very last moment, Pyongyang had insisted that the dead man was not Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, but that he was Kim Chol, the passport holder — this is indicative of the complexities of dealing with Pyongyang. Granted, Putrajaya’s decision to play the tit-for-tat game was instrumental to the success of the negotiations, more importantly though it demonstrated that while Malaysia is pacifist and neutral, she is no pushover. The prime minister has shown his hand twice, his ability to handle situations beyond delicate on the international scene. When Flight MH17 was shot down over East Ukraine, he had negotiated access to the scene of the crime and the release of the remains of passengers and crew. Stepping into the fray obviously is his forte, and when he represents Malaysia, a relatively small nation of middle income economy, his accomplishments suggest that the prime minister is a well-respected figure, someone other leaders do not ignore.

Of course, the hostages flown out of Pyongyang expressed nothing but gratitude to the man who ensured their safety. North Korea can be very unpredictable. Malaysia, as one of North Korea’s few friends must also have played a part. While not the warmest, the policy of visa-free travel between the two countries shows Putrajaya’s prudence given that Malaysia is a trading nation. For Pyongyang not to appreciate this hand of friendship would be just too incredible. Nevertheless, if, as alleged Kim Jong-nam was assassinated, then Pyongyang’s abuse of the friendship is not appreciated. Malaysia must make that sentiment known to Pyongyang in no uncertain terms.

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