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What does North Korea mean for Bangladesh?

  • Published at 12:03 am August 10th, 2016
  • Last updated at 04:58 pm August 10th, 2016
What does North Korea  mean for Bangladesh?

Once again, North Korea has become a front page story in Bangladesh. The government of Bangladesh has expelled Mr Han Son Ik, first secretary of the North Korean Mission to Dhaka, for his illegal activities violating diplomatic norms last week.

Customs officials reportedly seized a bulk of tobacco and electronic products worth Tk350 lakhs from the Inland Container Depot last month. What is disturbing is the repeated involvement of North Korean diplomats in similar cases over the past few years.

Last year, in March 2016, customs officials in Bangladesh seized gold worth around Tk130 lakh ($1.7m) from the hand luggage of a North Korean diplomat, Mr Son Young-nam, then first secretary at the North Korean embassy in Dhaka.

I must mention that North Korea’s alleged involvement in the $915m 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist has further strained its relationship with Bangladesh. This link to North Korea was established by the security researchers working at Symantec -- a leading internet security firm, and the British defense contractor BAE Systems.

In looking into the attack on the bank in Bangladesh, the Symantec researchers found an unusual code that has only been found in two other cyber attacks, ie Sony Pictures in December 2014, and media outlets in South Korea in 2013.

The relationship between Bangladesh and North Korea has largely been ceremonial rather than functionally beneficial in terms of trade, culture, politics, and, of course, social. Nevertheless, it has become high time for Bangladesh to review its relationship with North Korea given its current status in global security and perhaps its recent activities focusing on Bangladesh.

The unpredictability posed by the young dictator, chairman, and supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, son of the Eternal Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il and grandson of the Eternal President of North Korea Kim Il-sung, has posed significant threats to the Far East, South East, South Asia, Middle East, and the United States.

In recent years, North Korea’s aggressively developed and utilised capabilities, such as cyber warfare, nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles to advance its interest could be seen as a major threat to the global economic architecture, and, hence, its alleged involvement in the Bangladesh Bank heist is a credible development.

Getting North Korea to play gentle with everyone, including its own populace, could be a good agenda for Bangladesh to discuss during the proposed visit of the Chinese President Xi Jingping to Dhaka next month

I won’t be surprised if North Korea starts producing miniaturised nuclear warheads -- for a specific market dominated by the extremist outfits, and I certainly assume that they have that capability. I often fear what will happen if that paranoid young man, out of a desperate need to sustain his empire of dystopia, supplies his nuclear weapons and arms to the rogue outfits?

The Asian countries will have little to no warning of Kim Jong-un’s paranoid provocation, which may kick off an endless cycle of action and counteraction leading to an unintended escalation of the arms race and fatalities.

This calls for the need for a proactive role for Bangladesh to maintain a high level of preparedness and vigilance to protect its national and economic interests.

Perhaps Bangladesh, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the US, and the Middle East should focus on ensuring good, effective implementation of the UN Security Council resolution against North Korea which places strong constraints on North Korea’s ability to continue to conduct commerce across its borders, whether by sea, air, or land.

However, one must not forget that, in spite of sanctions, North Korea has proceeded with its nuclear and arms programs. It has mastered phenomenal ways to evade sanctions. It has a pool of elite state-owned trading companies and linkages with rogue outfits that keep the flow of cash and supplies steady.

To dismantle these companies, it will require strong commitment and co-operation between the US and China. But that would also require collective diplomacy too. Bangladesh should be a part of this collective diplomacy for its own interest to deter any future attacks, or to stop the smuggling of arms from North Korea all the way to the Middle East, using the Indian sub-continent.

I think North Korea has a slight bias towards Beijing, and Beijing is probably the only practical hope to stop Kim from going further rogue. Getting North Korea to play gentle with everyone, including its own populace, could be a good agenda for Bangladesh to discuss during the proposed visit of the Chinese President Xi Jingping to Dhaka next month.

If we don’t take it seriously in our foreign policy, the next cyber attack or a bulk of arms consignment for the extremists may come sooner rather than later from North Korea.

Shahab Enam Khan is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University. This is an excerpt from Shahab Enam Khan’s keynote speech at a seminar on “Human Rights and Security: Asian Perspective,” organised by the Centre for Governance Studies on August 6.