North Korean diplomats from Pyongyang’s embassy who were recently expelled from Malaysia in a rupture of diplomatic relations could face punishment over the first-ever extradition of a North Korean national to the United States, sources in China told RFA.
Pyongyang on Friday severed ties with Malaysia and closed down its embassy in Kuala Lumpur after the extradition of businessman Mun Chol Myong to Washington, where he faces six counts of money laundering.
Malaysia then ordered the North’s diplomats out in 48 hours and accused Pyongyang of attempting to meddle in its judicial system, where Mun lost a two-year battle to halt his extradition.
“As soon as I heard the reports that the Malaysian authorities arrested and handed over a North Korean businessman… to the U.S., the first thing that worried me was the safety of the embassy officials stationed there,” a North Korean trade official in Beijing, China told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“No matter where it happens, if any incident like this occurs, the embassy officials stationed in that area will have to take responsibility,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said the case was particularly unusual because Mun, an important fundraiser for North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party, was now in the custody of the U.S., which the source referred to as the “enemy country.”
“This incident has a political character in that it has undermined the authority of the Highest Dignity externally. As soon as it happened, the leadership in Pyongyang cut diplomatic relations with Malaysia,” the source said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“The embassy staff were notified to leave Malaysia within 48 hours. They were immediately on their way home as if they were chased away,” said the source.
The North Korean trade officials in China say they are worried about what could happen to the embassy’s most senior officials, such as Chargé D’affaires Kim Yu Song, according to the source.
“There is high concern that they may be dismissed or even be sent to a political prison camp for undermining the authority of the Highest Dignity and the country,” the source said.
Another North Korean trade worker, in China’s northeast, told RFA Tuesday that the news of Mun’s extradition was “shocking” to other officials, as they, like Mun, are assigned to earn foreign currency for the party.
“The U.S. is known to quickly identify and monitor the flow of illegal funds worldwide. In China, North Korean workers are making foreign currency and dealing with large amounts of money,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“In many cases, they violate the economic sanctions levied by the U.N. and U.S., so many are anxious that they could also be taken by the U.S. someday,” said the second source.
The second source said the workers stationed abroad feel they are in an unfair situation—ordered by North Korean authorities to do illegal things to earn foreign currency.
“But if any of them are deported for violating international sanctions, the authorities in North Korea will hold them personally responsible and punish them.”
North Korea and Malaysia established diplomatic relations in 1973, and with a visa waiver agreement in place, Malaysia became a major destination for Pyongyang to send trade workers to earn foreign currency over the years. But relations have been strained ever since the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Punishment for what the North Korean government considers embarrassment on the international stage is common.
After the 2016 defection of Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Pyongyang held responsible its vice-foreign minister, Kung Sok Ung, removing him from his position and exiling him and his family to a rural farming area.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.