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Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center right, shakes hands with Moon Jae-in, his South Korean counterpart, ahead of a summit on the outskirts of Jakarta Thursday.
Politics

North Korea losing its few remaining friends in Southeast Asia

Assassination in Kuala Lumpur poisons ties with Malaysia, Indonesia

JAKARTA -- North Korea's isolation in the world continues to deepen as its influence in Southeast Asia wanes, with even long-term allies turning their backs against the reclusive nation.

Its pursuit of missile and nuclear development despite unanimous international condemnation is not the only reason Pyongyang is losing friends in the region. The bizarre assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February has sorely depleted whatever goodwill people still had toward the country.

The widely held view is that North Korean agents tricked two women -- one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese -- to inadvertently take part in poisoning the half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. Pyongyang may have effectively gotten away with murder, but it is paying for the shocking act now. Ill feeling from the incident has prompted Southeast Asian countries to limit trade and migrant workers from North Korea, choking vital sources of much-needed foreign currency for the Kim regime.

Losing support

After meeting Thursday with Moon Jae-in, his South Korean counterpart, Indonesian President Joko Widodo endorsed Moon's efforts to resolve the conflict with Pyongyang through dialogue. Moon responded by asking for Indonesia's support. Their talks in Bogor, south of the Indonesian capital, also produced an agreement to hold a meeting of their foreign and defense ministers.

Indonesia had maintained close ties with North Korea since the time of Sukarno, who ruled the Southeast Asian country from the 1940s to 1960s as its first president. But Jakarta's attitude toward Pyongyang changed dramatically under Widodo, who came to power in 2014. Attracting more investment from South Korea is a major motive for the shift. Another is the worsening sentiment toward North Korea among Indonesians.

Public opinion sharply turned against the North after the assassination in Kuala Lumpur. The Indonesian accused of carrying out the murder is widely seen here as a victim of Pyongyang's trickery, a sentiment voiced publicly by Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Indonesia still maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea, with its embassy in Pyongyang seemingly operating as usual. But the populous Muslim nation is adhering to the United Nations sanctions and limiting trade and other dealings with North Korea, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Isolated

Malaysia, where the assassination was staged, had long been friendly with North Korea, but it, too, is now rethinking its ties with the rogue state.

"We are considering our bonds with North Korea, including cutting political and economic relations," Prime Minister Najib Razak told the parliament in October. Malaysia is considering closing its embassy in Pyongyang, he added.

Vietnam has been a North Korean ally since the time of the Vietnam War. But even there, a restaurant run by North Korea in Ho Chi Minh City closed its doors in October.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted a special statement condemning North Korea at a foreign ministers' meeting in August. ASEAN leaders are expected to denounce Pyongyang again at a summit to be held in Manila Monday and Tuesday.

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