The recent assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport took the world by surprise. Soon after the incident, journalists and analysts started to look into the history of Malaysia-North Korea relations to better understand why North Korea carried out such a brazen act with a WMD toxin in a major international airport in a country which maintained relatively friendly relations with Pyongyang.
Most of these initial reports on Malaysia-North Korea relations solely relied on online sources. Wanting to go beyond the power of Google web searches, I delved into the ROK Foreign Ministry archives. Some digging, revealed that this recent incident was not the first time North Korea conspired to create havoc in Malaysia.
On March 15, 1985, the ROK embassy in Kuala Lumpur received a message from the Malaysian government. The Malaysians warned the South Koreans that they had received a worrying report from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO): a rebellious PLO faction opposed to the leadership of Yasser Arafat was planning to carry out an attack on South Korean construction projects in Malaysia with the assistance of North Korean agents. Arabs and North Koreans with fake passports were planning to enter Malaysia and carry out these attacks.
FRIENDS OF PALESTINE
This was not the first time the North Koreans had cooperated with the Palestinian militants. In 1972, with the help of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the North Koreans planned a terrorist attack at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel.
The PFLP recruited three members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) to carry out the attack in order to avoid detection by Israeli authorities. With the help of North Korean training, weapons, and coordination, the three JRA members indiscriminately shot civilians in the Lod Airport baggage claim area with machine guns. The terrorists killed 24 people, including 16 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico, and injured 72 people.
This recent incident was not the first time North Korea created havoc in Malaysia.
According to Malaysian intelligence, the primary targets for the North Korea/PLO terrorist attack were the Penang Bridge, a 800 million dollar project being built by Hyundai Construction, the Kenyir Dam, which was Southeast Asia’s largest dam at the time, the port at Bintulu, and several urban housing complexes in Kuala Lumpur.
Police were directed to increase surveillance at all airports and border crossings. Malaysian border guards were specifically asked to double-check the documents of all Arabs and Koreans entering the country.
This intelligence was quickly leaked to the local media and published in the major Malay language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia. The North Korean embassy in Malaysia denied the reports that North Korean agents planned to attack or sabotage South Korean construction projects in Malaysia.
North Korean diplomats said that individuals trying to harm relations between the two countries must have started the rumors
The North Koreans said the reports were “groundless” rumors and that “relations of friendship between the DPRK and Malaysia keep deepening with each passing day…” The North Korean embassy also said the recent 1983 Rangoon bombing, which killed 17 South Koreans and nearly killed the South Korean President, was conducted “by the South Korean officials themselves in order to mislead the opinions of the South Korean people and the rest of the world.”
Two North Korean diplomats met with the chief editor of Utusan Malaysia and confirmed that the DPRK would not do anything to harm relations with Malaysia and emphasized that both nations were members of the Non-Aligned Movement. The North Korean diplomats said that individuals trying to harm relations between the two countries must have started the rumors.
However, the ROK Foreign Ministry noted that the Malaysian government was “nervous” about the whole situation and intensified the police presence at South Korean construction projects. The Malaysians also increased sea patrol surveillance near the Penang Bridge. There were even reports that police were conducting surprise checks on foreign nationals at Malaysian hotels.
During the midst of all this chaos, in late March 1985, the North Korean government made a request to send an art troupe to Malaysia. The confused Malaysian government told the North Koreans that this matter should be pursued privately and they would need to find a sponsor or promoter to foot the bill.
As history tells us, this North Korean attack on South Korean construction projects in Malaysia never took place. However, that does not mean the attack was never planned or discussed amongst North Korean officials.
Relations between Malaysia and North Korea remained the same after this incident. A cordial but not overly warm relationship endured until February 13, 2017 when North Korean agents murdered Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Now, Malaysia and North Korea are banning each other’s citizens from leaving and relations have quickly turned sour.
This 1985 incident tells us that the Malaysian government was aware of the threat posed by North Korea agents. Despite this threat, the Malaysians continued to host a DPRK embassy and to generally play nice with the increasingly isolated North Korean government.
The Malaysians may have missed a valuable opportunity in 1985 to expel North Korean diplomats from their country, extinguish the North Korean threat, and maybe save Kim Jong Nam.
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Featured Image: View of Kuala Lumpur by MASRURAASHRAF on 2009-11-20 03:08:53