Malaysia’s Mahathir hails Seoul’s ‘Look South Policy,’ affirms plan to embrace Pyongyang


BUSAN – Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad held out expectations Tuesday for this week’s special summit between South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), saying they can further develop win-win partnerships.

“We welcome Korea’s looking south policy,” he said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency and Yonhap News TV during his trip to Busan for the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit.

He was referring to the Moon Jae In administration’s New Southern Policy intended to strengthen Seoul’s strategic ties with ASEAN.

Mahathir pointed out that South Korea is not like before, having made tremendous progress, especially in terms of technology.

“So, it is important that ASEAN develops good relations with (South) Korea because we can benefit from your experience, your ways of doing things and also investments from Korea,” he said.

He stressed that Malaysia is “very suitable for interacting with Korea,” given his country’s English-speaking human resources and stable politics.

Reflecting Malaysia’s diplomatic pragmatism, the prime minister also said the country is reaching out to North Korea as well.

The Southeast Asian country is preparing to reopen its embassy in Pyongyang, partially closed since the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017.

“We want to be friendly with all countries in the world … Even North Korea can provide some trade for us. We don’t like confrontation,” he said.

He described the talk of the North Korean government being behind the assassination as “suspicion” and said it has not affected Malaysia’s security.

“So, now it is time to resume the normal relations between Malaysia and North Korea,” he said in the interview held at his Busan hotel room.

Asked about the exact timing, Mahathir said, “We are meeting them, we are talking to them.”

North Korean officials plan to visit Malaysia. “We will talk to them as to the appropriate time for us to open the embassy,” he added.

He said, though, his government will be “more careful” to ensure that internal affairs of other nations do not spill over into his country.

He reaffirmed support for Moon’s regional peace initiative.

“I appreciate President Moon’s idea. He is making some progress,” he said.

But the international community should avoid an attitude calling on North Korea to “do everything” before relieving sanctions.

The 94-year-old leader arrived in this southern port city on Sunday. He promptly visited Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), a major aerospace and defence company. He’s also planning to tour Hyundai Rotem, which also produces defence goods.

Asked about his schedule, he said Malaysia is looking for suitable partners for the supply of required weapons for its own defence and security.

He was prudent about South Korea’s push for a free trade agreement (FTA) with Malaysia.

“FTA is always good, but we have to understand the weakness and the strength of countries involved,” he said, adding Malaysia’s industrial strength is still in the stage of infancy.

He likened it to a golfer’s “handicap.” In order to contest with Tiger Woods, an amateurish golfer might need to adjust his handicap to allow for a fair match, Mahathir said.

On South Korea-Japan disputes over history, he suggested forward-looking efforts to resolve confrontations on the basis of what can contribute to their growth and development.

He’s scheduled to head to Seoul right after attending the Busan summit. He will have one-on-one summit talks with Moon at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday.