PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed readiness Tuesday to normalize ties with North Korea, which soured following the brazen assassination last year of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader.
Malaysia's making nice to Pyongyang comes on the heels of a change in government following the shocking defeat of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak's coalition in the May 9 general election.
In an interview with Kyodo News at his office in Putrajaya, the federal administrative capital, Mahathir, who was sworn in as premier for a second time shortly after the election, said, "We want to reestablish diplomatic relations."
When asked if his government will reinstate a visa-free travel arrangement with North Korea, Mahathir said, "yes."
Malaysia and North Korea once enjoyed a cozy relationship prior to Kim's murder on Feb. 13, 2017, in broad daylight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries date back to 1973, with the two sides establishing embassies in each other's capitals in 2003.
In 2009, Malaysia signed an agreement with North Korea waiving visas for visits of up to 30 days to North Korea, and vice versa.
Over 1,000 North Koreans were working in Malaysia before ties chilled in the aftermath of Kim's murder at the airport's crowded budget terminal, as evidence pointed to Pyongyang's involvement in the attack.
The United States and South Korea have accused Pyongyang of ordering the murder to preempt any challenge to leader Kim Jong Un's leadership.
Then North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol accused Malaysia of colluding with "hostile forces" by taking sides with South Korea to smear the image of North Korea.
The verbal sparring between Malaysia and North Korea led to Malaysia cancelling the visa-free arrangement two weeks after the murder and expelling Pyongyang's ambassador. North Korean workers were also deported, and there is now a freeze on the issuance of work permits for North Koreans.
At the height of the row, North Korea retaliated by preventing Malaysian diplomats in Pyongyang from leaving the country. They were only allowed to head home after Malaysia agreed to repatriate Kim's body to Pyongyang together with several North Korean suspects wanted by police in connection with the murder case.
Although Najib, the prime minister at the time, did not break off diplomatic ties, Malaysia has virtually shut down its embassy in Pyongyang and the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur is still without a head of mission.
Two women, Siti Aisyah from Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam, are currently standing trial in a Malaysian court for allegedly killing Kim Jong Nam with the deadly nerve agent VX. They were charged together with four North Koreans who are still at large.
In the interview, Mahathir, who visited North Korea in the 1970s as deputy prime minister and dined with the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, indicated that he views the Kim Jong Nam case as a "simple case of murder," and that he will let the law takes its course.
Without direct proof of who ordered the killing, Mahathir said, "We cannot on that basis break off relations."
"In fact there were other foreign people who were killed in Malaysia, assassinated in Malaysia," he said. "But we did not take any action against the country."
The prime minister also said Malaysia has an economic imperative to maintain amicable relations with other countries.
"We want to be friendly with all the countries of the world because the world is our market. So any country is important for us because we can trade with them," he said.
Mahathir welcomed a meeting between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore earlier this month, the first-ever summit between the two countries. A joint statement issued at the summit commits North Korea to complete denuclearization.
"I think we would like to look positively at the change in the attitude of North Korea," he said. "We have to accept that they (North Koreans) wish to denuclearize North Korea and they have taken a step to get rid of their launching pad and all that. So...we are not going to pass judgement."
He indicated that Malaysia will reopen its embassy in Pyongyang, but that such a decision would have to wait until a foreign minister is appointed.
"We don't have a minister. Once we have a minister, we will do it," he said.
Mahathir has so far named 13 ministers to his Cabinet. The palace said late Monday that King Muhammad V has consented to the list of names submitted by Mahathir for the remaining Cabinet posts, including that of the foreign minister, and that the swearing-in will take place on July 2.
Shahriman Lockman, senior analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, believes it might be a little premature to send diplomats back to Pyongyang after what happened last year.
But he sees a "classic Mahathir" in the prime minister's plan.
"He is always keen to establish relations with countries in order to secure first-mover advantage in terms of trade. I suspect that Mahathir believes DPRK is at the precipice of opening up and wants to ensure that Malaysia has a footing in the country before that happens," Lockman said.
DPRK refers to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the formal name of North Korea.
Mahathir, in his first run as prime minister, ruled for 22 years until his retirement in 2003. During that period, he often styled himself as a champion of the Third World, which entailed engaging with countries like North Korea.Source: Kyodo News