World View: Tensions Grow over THAAD and North Korea-Malaysia Relations

South Korean protesters rally against the planned deployment of the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defence system. in Seoul on February 28, 2017

This morning’s key headlines from

  • Malaysia’s relations with North Korea continue rapid deterioration
  • China promises retaliation over surprise deployment of THAAD in South Korea
  • South Korea threatens to sue China in World Trade Organization (WTO)

Malaysia’s relations with North Korea continue rapid deterioration

Yellow tape and armed guards on Tuesday around North Korea's embassy in Malaysia prevent anyone from leaving (AP)
Yellow tape and armed guards on Tuesday around North Korea’s embassy in Malaysia prevent anyone from leaving (AP)

Malaysia and North Korea appear close to completely severing diplomatic relations. They have already expelled each other’s ambassadors, and the war of words continues to be increasingly vitriolic.

After Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s child dictator Kim Jong-un, was assassinated on February 13 in Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia, North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, began a series of bitter vitriolic attacks on Malaysia’s government, accusing the Malaysians of conducting an unauthorized autopsy, saying that the investigation was untrustworthy, and accusing Malaysian authorities of “colluding with the hostile forces towards us who are desperate to harm us of malice,” referring to South Korea.

Apparently the reason that North Korea did not want an autopsy to be performed was that they did not want the Malaysians to know that King Jong-nam had been killed with VX nerve gas, which is so deadly that it is considered to be a “weapon of mass destruction,” and its use is forbidden by international law. The fact that North Korea used a weapon of mass destruction on Malaysian soil to kill someone has infuriated Malaysia’s government.

Malaysia would like to question several of the North Korean embassy staff for involvement in the assassination. This has further infuriated the North Koreans, who say that the embassy staff all have full diplomatic immunity. This is actually only true for the top officials in the enmity.

On Tuesday, North Korea announced that no citizen of Malaysia in North Korea would be permitted to leave. This has infuriated the entire Malaysian population, and some are saying that it was tantamount to war. Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak said that this was a violation of international law:

They cannot act at their whims and fancy, violating the international law to hold Malaysians hostage. It is indeed unacceptable not only by Malaysia, but also the world.

Eleven Malaysians are known to be in North Korea: three embassy staff, six family members and two others who work for the United Nations’ World Food Program. Malaysian officials said they were safe. “There is no threat to their lives. Let us not come to that point yet,” said Reezal Merican, the deputy foreign minister.

Malaysia then banned North Koreans from leaving Malaysia, but different reports have different versions of this ban. Some say that only embassy personnel would be banned from leaving, and there are probably only a few dozen of these. Other reports say that all North Koreans are banned from leaving, and there are thousands of these. One reports says that Malaysia’s government at first wanted to ban just the embassy staff, and then changed its mind to ban all North Koreans.

In another move, it turns out that both Malaysia and Singapore have been enabling North Korea to conduct illegal activities on their territories. Singapore last summer already cracked down on transshipments through its ports following new international sanctions imposed in the wake of last year’s nuclear and missile tests. Malaysian officials have been closing their eyes to North Korean weapons sales through Malaysian companies, in violation of sanctions against North Korea, and now Malaysia is shutting down those businesses.

It seems that relations between Malaysia and North Korea become harsher and more vitriolic every day. And with both countries holding each other’s citizens hostage, the rapid deterioration in relations is liable to continue. The Star (Malaysia) and Washington Post and Free Malaysia Today

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China promises retaliation over surprise deployment of THAAD in South Korea

Diplomatic relations between China and South Korea also appear to be deteriorating, especially after Tuesday’s surprise move by South Korea and the United States to begin deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system by the first delivery of large components. THAAD is composed of six mobile launchers, 48 interceptors, an X-band radar and the fire and control unit.

Originally, the deployment was to have been completed by the end of 2017, but now it appears that it will be completed this summer. The speedup is being attributed to North Korea’s aggressive schedule of nuclear and missile tests, with increased danger of attack on North Korea’s neighbors, including South Korea.

China has been furiously objecting to the deployment of THAAD, ever since it was announced in 2014. After Tuesday’s delivery of THAAD components, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said:

We strongly oppose the decision to deploy THAAD and will take necessary steps to defend our security interest. South Korea and the US will bear the consequences… We urge them not to go further down that wrong path.

In response, the White House said:

We stand shoulder to shoulder with Japan and South Korea in doing what we can to protect that region in particular from an attack from North Korea. We understand the situation. We continue to work with them. As I mentioned, the president spoke to both leaders yesterday and we provided a readout of those calls. But we obviously understand the concerns of China, but this is a national security issue for them.

China’s state media said that the reason the deployment was speeded up was not because of a threat from North Korea, but because the deployment would help conservative politicians in elections likely to be held in a few months.

China says that THAAD is not designed to intercept North Korean missiles, which travel at too low an altitude for THAAD. Furthermore, North Korea already has enough technology to avoid interception by THAAD. However, THAAD’s “over the horizon” radar is able to see deep into China and detect military movements. Yonhap (Seoul) and Korea Herald and Xinhua (Beijing)

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South Korea threatens to sue China in World Trade Organization (WTO)

China’s spokesman did not specify what the “consequences” would be, but they are assumed to be economic sanctions targeting South Korea.

China has already ordered its travel agencies to stop selling packaged tours to Korea, and has banned Korean cosmetics and foods. South Korean pop stars and entertainers have been barred from appearing on Chinese TV programs since October.

To see what other steps China might take, we can recall the steps that China took to punish Japan when Japan displeased China. In the 2010 confrontations, China took revenge on Japan by terminating shipments of rare earth minerals, needed for manufacturing many of Japan’s electronic products. In 2012, the Beijing government encouraged the Chinese people to demonstrate and protest against Japanese businesses in China. The government urged protesters not to use violence, but that part of the message was clearly ignored, as protesters torched a Panasonic factory and Toyota dealership, looted and ransacked Japanese department stores and supermarkets in several cities.

South Korea is considering filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over using economic sanctions for political purposes. South Korea might also file a lawsuit under the investment clause of the Korea-China Free Trade Agreement.

However, some South Korea functions are counseling caution, as China might retaliate further. Korea Times and Barrons

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KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Malaysia, North Korea, Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un, Najib Razak, Kang Chol, VX nerve gas, Singapore, Geng Shuang, South Korea, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, Japan, World Trade Organization, WTO
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