US to enlist Malaysia's help to rein in N. Korea

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving at the Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang yesterday. He is the first senior Trump administration official to visit Kuala Lumpur.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving at the Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang yesterday. He is the first senior Trump administration official to visit Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Intelligence-sharing among topics to be brought up by visiting US Secretary of State

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 was expected to press Prime Minister Najib Razak on 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 use its ports and airports as transit points for its defence-related shipments, diplomats and Malaysian government officials said.

Mr Tillerson, who flew in after a stopover in Bangkok earlier in the day, called on Datuk Seri Najib last night at the Parliament building where discussions focused on bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest, media reports said. He will meet Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi this morning before returning to the US.

He is said to be 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, who will officiate the groundbreaking of a China-funded RM55 billion (S$17.5 billion) rail link in Kuantan 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 North Korea's nuclear drive, maritime security and the growing threat of terrorism.

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.

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.

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 could be 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline 'US to enlist Malaysia's help to rein in N. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe