US to get Malaysia's help to rein in North Korea

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (centre) is welcomed as he arrives at the Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, on Aug 8, 2017.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (centre) is welcomed as he arrives at the Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, on Aug 8, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

KUALA LUMPUR - The United States has identified Malaysia as a key player in its efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to press Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak for intelligence- sharing and closer cooperation in cracking down on the regime's clandestine operations in the region.

US intelligence-gathering has spotlighted Malaysia as a favoured location for North Korea and its proxies to hold secret meetings, do business to generate much-needed foreign currency and treat its ports and airports as transit points for its defence-related shipments, diplomats and Malaysian government officials said.

Mr Tillerson, who flew in yesterday afternoon from Bangkok, will also meet Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi this morning before returning to the US.

He is hoping to seal a formal arrangement to allow US and Malaysian agencies to share information, dismantle commercial operations and detain North Korean proxies operating here.

As for Malaysia, it is keen to strengthen ties with the US, and officials in Kuala Lumpur noted that the Prime Minister and his deputy are likely to respond positively to the top US diplomat's proposals.

Mr Tillerson's efforts will be closely watched as his visit comes just hours before the arrival of China's State Councillor Wang Yong.

Mr Wang, a senior ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party and special representative to President Xi Jinping, will officiate the groundbreaking of a China-funded RM55 billion (S$17.5 billion) rail link today.

Mr Tillerson, the first senior Trump administration official to visit Kuala Lumpur, began his five-day swing through the region in Manila, where he attended the Asean Regional Forum.

Issues discussed included the North Korea issue, maritime security and the growing threat posed by regional radical groups sympathetic to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Malaysia's decades-old, but little noticed, ties with North Korea burst into the international spotlight following the killing in February of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Ties between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang, which were established in 1973, were quietly upgraded in 2000, when Malaysia allowed visa-free travel by North Koreans.

Many took advantage of the diplomatic access to set up businesses, particularly in suburbs around Kuala Lumpur.

At its peak, at least 1,000 North Koreans were running businesses in the city, according to Malaysian government estimates.

Malaysia has taken a stern view of North Korean activities since the killing of Mr Kim Jong Nam.

So far, two firms with direct North Korean ownership, Glocom and International Global Systems, have had to stop operations.

Malaysian police recently revealed that in 2011, they had intercepted and returned a shipment of North Korean military communications equipment by Glocom intended for Thailand.

Apart from finding common ground on dealing with North Korea, Malaysian officials noted that Mr Tillerson is expected to register Washington's appreciation for Kuala Lumpur's tough stand on radical groups with ties to ISIS.

Of particular interest is Malaysia's deradicalisation programme, which has a 95 per cent success rate with 242 detainees rehabilitated, the officials added.

ljlopez@sph.com.sg