Py­ongyang’s art of brinkman­ship

New Straits Times - - News -

SEOUL: Py­ongyang’s travel ban on Malaysians leav­ing North Korea sharply es­ca­lated the al­ready-high ten­sions with Kuala Lumpur — but is only the lat­est episode of the iso­lated coun­try’s diplo­matic brinkman­ship.

The au­thor­i­tar­ian nu­cle­ar­armed state has a long his­tory of us­ing for­eign­ers — es­pe­cially Amer­i­can tourists or mis­sion­ar­ies — as bar­gain­ing chips in its nu­clear and aid ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States.

The reclu­sive na­tion has also oc­ca­sion­ally shut its bor­ders in the face of ex­ter­nal health threats or in protest of mil­i­tary ten­sion with South Korea, de­spite po­ten­tial con­se­quences.

Here are some of its most no­table mea­sures:

A num­ber of Amer­i­cans have been ar­rested and jailed for crimes, in­clud­ing hos­tile acts and il­le­gal reli­gious ac­tiv­ity, some­times for years.

Many were re­leased af­ter vis­its by high-pro­file US fig­ures, in­clud­ing ex-pres­i­dents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clin­ton, but with re­la­tions be­tween Py­ongyang and Wash­ing­ton in the deep freeze, two re­main in the North.

Otto Warm­bier, a 22-year-old col­lege stu­dent, was last year sen­tenced to 15 years’ hard labour for steal­ing pro­pa­ganda ma­te­ri­als. Kim Dong-Chul, a Korean-Amer­i­can pas­tor, has been jailed on spy­ing charges.

The North re­ceives a tiny num­ber of over­seas vis­i­tors, but closed its bor­ders to for­eign tourists for more than four months from Oc­to­ber 2014 in a bid to keep out the Ebola virus — when no cases had been re­ported in Asia.

It went so far as to en­force a 21day quar­an­tine pe­riod on any­one en­ter­ing the coun­try, in­clud­ing diplo­mats and busi­ness­men.

Tourism is a cru­cial source of hard cur­rency for the im­pov­er­ished na­tion, but the coun­try, no­to­ri­ous for weak med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture and chronic lack of medicines, ap­peared will­ing to take a fi­nan­cial hit.

When South Korea suf­fered from the world’s largest out­break of Mid­dle East Res­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome in 2015, the North re­port­edly pro­hib­ited its diplo­mats and work­ers from re­turn­ing to their home­land for months.

Py­ongyang also sus­pended for­eign tours for three months due to fears over se­vere acute res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome in 2003.

The Kaesong in­dus­trial com­plex, where more than 100 South Korean firms em­ploy more than 50,000 North Korean staff in a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion project, suf­fered po­lit­i­cal set­backs af­ter it was set up in 2004, even­tu­ally clos­ing last year.

Py­ongyang with­drew all its work­ers in April 2013 in protest at joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises be­tween Seoul and Wash­ing­ton, and or­dered all South Korean man­agers to leave im­me­di­ately. Seven were or­dered to stay un­til re­main­ing wages for North Korean work­ers were paid.

The group was al­lowed to re­turn home a month later af­ter Seoul sent a con­voy car­ry­ing more than US$10 mil­lion (RM44.5 mil­lion) in cash across the bor­der.

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