Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Malaysia will begin formal talks with North Korea in the coming days in a bid to let Pyongyang return nine Malaysians barred from leaving the country, said Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, Malaysia's foreign minister, on Saturday. Since the mysterious death of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13, a diplomatic spat emerged between the two countries, which started with expelling each other's ambassador, to banning each other's citizens from returning home.
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur in 1973, the two had a close relationship, with Malaysia being the only nation whose citizens can travel to North Korea without a visa for up to 30 days.
In terms of diplomacy, Kuala Lumpur helped Pyongyang on many occasions, including the negotiations between North Korea and Japan over setting up bilateral diplomatic relations in 2002 and the informal talks between North Korean and US diplomats in Kuala Lumpur in October last year.
There has been no sign that this bilateral relationship would take a turn for the worse until the death of Kim Jong-nam. North Korea claimed it cannot trust the Malaysian police's investigation into the case, and the latter rejected the former's demand to hand over the body. There has been escalating disputes between them and Pyongyang continues to express its dissatisfaction with the Malaysian government.
In the meantime, Washington and Seoul's crucial roles in the whole drama should also be noted. After North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in early 2016, the South Korean government spared no effort in persuading the countries, which have relatively friendly relations with Pyongyang, to isolate North Korea. The White House is doing the same through increasing international sanctions against the country.
Furthermore, due to the corruption scandal last year which revealed that Malaysia's state development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, has gripped the nation for years, the US-Malaysian relationship has been increasingly strained, since the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the fund and seized over $1 billion in assets from it.
Under these circumstances, Kuala Lumpur might hope to shift its people's focus from the scandal and try to fix its ties with Washington through its current row with Pyongyang. This is also the reason why North Korea believes that Malaysia has a "sinister purpose" and is collaborating with the US and South Korea over the case.
Therefore, fluctuations in the North Korea-Malaysia relations resulted from Kim Jong-nam's death are far from simple disputes between the two nations, but are closely linked to the acceleration of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The results of Malaysian police's investigation point the finger at Pyongyang. Now, all the attention is on the lethal nerve agent VX, a banned chemical weapon that was reportedly used in the death of Kim Jong-nam. It might provide an excuse for the US to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, like in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq as it claimed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in the country.
The largest ever US-South Korea military drill is now unfolding and will last for two months. Some media have been signaling that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo may resort to military confrontation against Pyongyang very soon. The tension on the Korean Peninsula is likely to escalate.
Given that US President Donald Trump assumed office not long ago, he has very limited understanding over the complexity on the peninsula. Moreover, his new administration is filled with hawks such as new Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The White House will, hence, tend to continue showcasing US military prowess at North Korea's doorstep, trying to force Pyongyang to make compromises over its nuclear issue.
However, if tensions on the peninsula won't blow up into an all-out war within the next two months, the White House will have a clearer recognition and policy toward North Korea. If Washington can realize that large-scale military drills and high pressure could hardly frighten Pyongyang but will only deteriorate the situation, it may reconsider its actions, or even say yes to the China-led dual-track approach, where peace treaty talks and denuclearization negotiations would proceed simultaneously. On the other hand, North Korea might be propelled to think whether its persistence in nuclear and missile tests actually work.
The author is a professor on international politics at the College of Public Administration, Jilin University. email@example.com Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion