Malaysia’s North Korean community keeping low profile after Kim Jong-nam’s murder
Malaysia’s only North Korean restaurant promises a glimpse into life in the reclusive state but it has been closed since news broke of the assassination of leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, with security guards turning customers away.
Pyongyang Koryo is the most visible symbol of a 1,000-strong North Korean community in Malaysia, made up of a business elite as well as ordinary workers who are likely to know little about the cold war-style killing of Kim Jong-nam.
Waitresses at the restaurant, one of dozens the North has established abroad, wear traditional dress and entertain diners with singing and dancing at the unassuming building in a sleepy residential area of Kuala Lumpur.
But even when the doors are open neighbours say the young women have little contact with the wider world as they are shuttled to and from their accommodation.
“I’ve seen the women being taken to and from the compound and they never walk this way or talk to anyone,” said Jack Liew, who runs a car workshop that shares a back alley with the restaurant.
“When I tried to look into their back yard, the door was covered with vinyl sheeting and there’s nothing else to look at,” he said.
Other residents also said they had seen the North Korean workers but had never spoken with them, describing the waitresses only as “very pretty”.
At the other end of the spectrum are elites who are also keeping a low profile but would be well aware of the assassination, said Alex Hwang, a South Korean who chairs the Malaysian branch of the Seoul-backed National Unification Advisory Council.
Hwang runs an upmarket restaurant in the Malaysian capital which he says is popular with prominent North Korean expatriates, at one time including Jong-Nam who was killed at Kuala Lumpur’s airport in an apparent poisoning attack on Monday.
Their business interests include computer animation firms, manufacturing, and some black market activities, he said.
“Most of them have Rolex watches, they drive nice cars, their children go to normal schools and have the latest gadgets ... They are like any other business person,” said Hwang of the roughly 250-strong group.
But they would think twice before sharing news of the assassination with friends or family when they go home.
Each North Korean family living abroad reports to the local embassy every month for a debrief and when they return, they undergo “re-education” before being allowed to return to the general population, he said.
On Saturday around 40 North Koreans made their way to the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, South Korea’s Chosun TV reported as its journalists quizzed the group over the killing which Seoul’s spy chief said was carried out by agents from the North.
Analysts believe Kim Jong-nam may have been seen as a rival to his younger sibling, in a dynastic regime that has never loosened its grip on power in three generations.
When asked whether Pyongyang could have been responsible, one North Korean said, “This is dog talk (nonsense)” before walking away and telling the reporter to leave him alone.
North Korea’s ambassador has spoken of “hostile forces” acting in the investigation into the killing, and accused Seoul of defaming Pyongyang in a bid to distract from a corruption scandal at home.
The incident has rapidly cooled relations between North Korea and Malaysia, which had been unusually warm, with a reciprocal visa-free travel deal for visitors.
Up to 100,000 North Koreans are believed to be working abroad and their remittances are a valuable source of foreign currency for the isolated regime.
North Korea commentator Park Sokeel said the Pyongyang Koryo waitresses probably had no idea about the killing, as workers living outside the closed state are kept on a tight rein with their access to media limited to approved material.
“They are very likely to be tightly controlled by a North Korean company where they interact only with each other and will not be allowed to leave the premises,” he said.
The same would be true of the miners and labourers in remote parts of Malaysia, said Park, director for research and strategy at the human rights campaign group Liberty for North Korea.
And even if workers did catch a glimpse of the international press they would find it difficult to understand the news, as most would not know their leader had an elder half-brother.
“It’s not even a question of whether people know that he died because people didn’t even know that he was born,” he said.