NEW DELHI: Malaysia and North Korea have fallen out over the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who was publicly poisoned in the crowded Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13.

The diplomatic break came with Malaysia’s expulsion of the North Korean ambassador Kang Chol, following days of acrimonious accusations and counter-accusations exchanged between the two countries in the wake of the mysterious killing.

In the aftermath of the murder, speculation has been rife over whether the Government of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, as North Korea is known) was behind the hit executed by two women, one from Indonesia and the other from Vietnam.

Four North Koreans, who provided the women with the VX nerve agent – a banned chemical weapon – fled Malaysia after the killing. The two women charged with Jong-nam’s murder face death if convicted. A North Korean suspect in custody, Ri Jong Chol, was deported on March 3 for lack of evidence against him.

As investigations continue to unveil the conspiracy behind Jong-nam’s assassination, DPRK faces further diplomatic isolation. DPRK’s relations with Malaysia, China, the US, and Japan besides South Korea are strained; and, its citizens and exiles may be under greater suspicion in these and other countries.

As it is, DPRK has diplomatic relations with only 50-plus countries and, even in these, facilities such as visa-free entry or visa on arrival may be reviewed. At another level, these developments would exacerbate tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

After, Jong-nam’s killing, Malaysia-DPRK relations have taken a turn for the worse. Despite speculation that Pyongyang orchestrated the assassination, Malaysia has not openly accused the DPRK government of murder. Yet, it has rejected Pyongyang’s contentions to the contrary and requests related to the incident.

In the diplomatic battle that ensued, DPRK asked Malaysia to skip the autopsy but authorities stuck to the law and carried it out. The autopsy findings were rejected by DPRK’s envoy Ri Tong Il, who accused Malaysia of bias. He denied that the two detained women were involved in the killing and claimed that Jong-nam, who has a history of cardiac disease, died of a heart attack.

After the murder, Malaysia scrapped visa-free entry for North Koreans, who may also face travel restrictions in other southeast Asian cities. Malaysia-DPRK tensions escalated after Kuala Lumpur’s refusal to desist from the autopsy, which triggered a spate of allegations against the former. The mildest of accusations was that Malaysia was biased in its investigations. The more serious allegations were that Malaysia had something to hide and was, therefore, colluding with outside powers to defame North Korea.

The Malaysian government demanded that DPRK apologise for its wild and baseless allegations including over Malaysia’s handling of the investigation into Kim’s killing. The North Korean government refused to apologise and failed to turn up for a scheduled meeting in Malaysia’s foreign ministry on March 4. This proved to be the proverbial last straw, and Malaysia sent notice declaring Ambassador Kang Chol as persona non grata and asking him to leave the country within 48 hours.

The incident may cause more friction in DPRK-China relations. Jong-nam, when he was killed, was on his way to China-controlled Macau, where he had been living for long. DPRK’s recent ballistic missile and nuclear tests have already raised tensions between Pyongyang and Beijing, and Jong-nam’s murder would only add to the problems.

China has suspended coal imports from DPRK and favours sanctions against Pyongyang as agreed upon by the international community. Beijing was also party to the UN Security Council’s press statement against DPRK’s February 12 missile launch. Although Beijing has not reacted to the killing, it is watching developments closely.

There is concern in Japan and South Korea, which has demanded DPRK’s suspension from the UN. In the US, the incident is bound to have a negative impact and turn public opinion even more against DPRK.

The gathering tide of diplomatic opinion and actions against DPRK in the region and beyond is expected to heighten tensions in northeast Asia in the short term. All of which does not bode well for the DPRK’s leader Jong-un, and his government.

(Shastri Ramachandaran is a senior journalist)