When a North Korean businessman was extradited from Kuala Lumpur to the United States last week to face money laundering charges , the hermit kingdom was outraged. It responded by cutting off diplomatic ties with Malaysia while warning it would “have to bear full responsibility” and that consequences would “be incurred”. Pyongyang’s fury is in part explained by the fact the businessman, Mun Chol-myong, 55, is the first North Korean to be extradited to the US, potentially paving the way for more such actions. Alan Kohler, assistant director of the FBI’s counter-intelligence division, has already said he hopes Mun’s extradition will be “the first of many”. But another element of its anger, according to analysts, is that Mun is a suspected spy and Pyongyang is worried over what intelligence its arch enemy America may be able to glean from him. So great is the fall out, they say, that the possibility of Pyongyang’s retribution taking the form of assassinations – possibly even of innocent civilians – cannot be ruled out. Their warnings came as South Korea’s military said on Thursday it believed the North had fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, in what appeared to be the country’s first ballistic missile test during the administration of US President Joe Biden . “I am sure the [North Korean] regime fears that he will be of great intelligence value to the US if he confesses and provides information as part of a possible plea deal,” David Maxwell, senior fellow of the Foundation For Defence of Democracies and a retired Special Forces Colonel, told This Week In Asia . Maxwell said the US hoped “to gain information about the regime’s illicit activities network” with the extradition, as well as enforcing a “rules based international order”. “It will expose Kim Jong-un’s global illicit activities operations to the outside world,” said Maxwell, referring to the North Korean leader. Mun’s knowledge of and links to Pyongyang’s operations abroad were “certainly significant”, said Maxwell. Mun’s work was thought to be connected to North Korea’s Office 39, a covert government department Pyongyang uses to raise hard currency to support its economy, said Maxwell. North Korea’s reaction to his extradition was “telling” of the role he played for the office, said Professor Zachary Abuza of the Washington-based National War College. Abuza said Mun’s work, as an “experienced operative with nearly 20 years’ experience in money laundering, procuring luxury items and technology” would have been seen as “essential to keeping the Kim family in power”. Is North Korea’s move to cut ties with Malaysia a ‘test’ for Joe Biden? “I think it also demonstrates just how important [efforts to evade sanctions] have been to the regime’s survival and acquisition of nuclear weapons,” Abuza added. On Monday, the US Justice Department said Mun had appeared in a federal court in Washington where he was accused of laundering money through the US financial system as part of a scheme to provide luxury items to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the official name of North Korea. Mun is alleged to have defrauded US banks and violated both US and United Nations (UN) sanctions as part of his money laundering activities in transactions valued at over US$1.5 million. Maxwell said the US hoped to send a message to the North Koreans and all those conducting illicit activities in support of the regime that “we can reach out and get you” through international legal and diplomatic means. The regime could possibly lose more bases of operations when other countries were “no longer willing to turn a blind eye to its illicit activities,” said Maxwell. A BUSINESSMAN AND A SPY The US court documents allege that Mun, who lived in Malaysia for a decade with his family, was a North Korean intelligence officer who had been working under non-official cover in Singapore and Malaysia since around 2011. The documents claimed Mun was affiliated with the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), North Korea’s primary intelligence and clandestine operations entity, which has been sanctioned by the UN. The RGB has previously been associated with peacetime commando raids, infiltration, disruptions and other clandestine operations, including the 2014 hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment computer system in retaliation against the movie The Interview , which ridiculed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and even portrayed an assassination plot against him. Mun was arrested in Malaysia in 2019 after the US accused him of laundering funds through front companies and issuing fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to North Korea. He denied the allegations, saying they were politically motivated. He now faces a terrible dilemma as his US detention may have compromised the safety of his family in North Korea. Maxwell of the Foundation For Defence of Democracies said he was certain Mun’s family in North Korea would “not be treated well” and “could be sent to the gulags”. Mun too would face retribution were he to return home, said Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University in the US. “For Mr Mun, the choice will become clear: either to stand strong, deny all charges, defend the DPRK and serve a long prison term or settle for a plea bargain and seek asylum out of fear of retribution were he to return home,” said Lee. Currently the fate of his wife and daughter, who lived with him in Malaysia, is unknown. Malaysia and Singapore, regional hubs for trade and finance, had long been favoured by North Korea as places to carry out illicit activities, analysts said. Blinken asks China to pressure North Korea into abandoning nuclear programme Therefore in severing its ties with Malaysia, North Korea had lost one of its most important bases of operations, said Maxwell of Foundation For Defence of Democracies. “The regime probably assesses it has to give up Malaysia to protect the rest of its [global illicit activities and network] to cut its losses and mitigate the damage that will be done when Mun testifies or provides intelligence to US authorities,” said Maxwell. “Protecting Office 39 and its illicit activities may be more important than the activities being conducted in Malaysia although Malaysia was a very good location for the regime to do a lot of business,” added Maxwell . Lee said Mun’s extradition and the closing of the DPRK embassy would probably dampen such activities in the near-term, as the embassy network had been dismantled. RETRIBUTION, BUT IN WHAT FORM? Mun’s extradition is the latest setback to the Malaysia-North Korea relationship, which was rocked four years ago by the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam , in Kuala Lumpur. Jong-nam was killed by two female assassins who smeared the deadly nerve agent VX into his face at a Kuala Lumpur airport. Within minutes, he was dead. With memories of the killing still fresh in Malaysian minds, North Korea’s warning of “consequences” for Mun’s extradition has prompted the Malaysian police chief to raise security measures at sensitive locations. “We are being vigilant now over the possibility that something not good might happen, and I have reminded all state police chiefs to monitor the situation,” Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador told local media. “With North Korea, we always take the approach of being careful because there have been many humiliating incidents involving the country,” Bador added. Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who previously worked for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, said North Korea may now carry out tests on mid and long-range missiles. Lee at Tufts University warned North Korea’s reach was long and it would bide its time while seeking retribution. Cyberattacks were one form this retribution might take, but “conventional terrorist attacks and murders” could not be ruled out, he said. “A chemical weapons target of Kim Jong-nam’s stature on Malaysian soil may not appear any time soon, but the DPRK may be more motivated to carry out lower-level provocations like abductions and even assassinations of South Koreans in Malaysia,” said Lee. He said the probability of an innocent Malaysian or South Korean being abducted seemed low, at least for now, but could not be ruled out. “In the past, there have been several abductions of South Korean nationals from Europe. Hence, one cannot rule out the possibility of the abduction or even assassination of South Korean or Malaysian nationals in the future,” warned Lee, adding there was even a credible threat that US nationals could be taken hostage. In 1978, five young women – four Malaysians and a Singaporean – mysteriously disappeared after being invited to a party on a boat off the coast of Singapore. Agents from North Korea have long been suspected of being behind their disappearance. One South Korean actress abductee and a US soldier who deserted and went to North Korea claimed to have seen at least one of the Malaysian women. The actress and American soldier both left North Korea after spending many years there. North Korea in 2002 admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies.