Malaysia, North Korea Ratchet Up Tensions

Fadzil Aziz and S.C. Lei
Kuala Lumpur and George Town, Malaysia
170307-MY-NK-bilateral-1000.jpg North Korean Embassy official Kim Yu Song looks on from behind police tape blocking the entrance to the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, March 7, 2017.

North Korea announced Tuesday it was barring Malaysians from exiting its territory and Malaysia reciprocated with a similar ban on North Korean visitors, as the two nations sharply escalated a feud following the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who convened an emergency session of the National Security Council after flying home from a Jakarta summit of Indian Ocean states, condemned North Korea’s move and likened it to holding his countrymen as prisoners.

“This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms,” Najib said in a statement Tuesday.

“As a peace-loving nation, Malaysia is committed to maintaining friendly relations with all countries. However, protecting our citizens is my first priority, and we will not hesitate to take all measures necessary when they are threatened,” he said.

The prime minister said he had instructed Malaysia’s police chief to block “all North Korean citizens in Malaysia” from leaving the country “until we are assured of the safety and security of all Malaysians in North Korea.”

The prime minister also called on North Korea to allow Malaysian citizens to leave that country and “avoid any further escalation.”

The Malaysian police followed suit by mounting a barricade in the street in front of North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and sealing the gate to the diplomatic mission with yellow “Do Not Cross” tape.

Heightened tensions

Tuesday’s dramatic turn of events followed Malaysia’s expulsion of the North Korean ambassador.

The two countries had enjoyed long-standing diplomatic relations until the row erupted last month. Malaysia was among a handful of countries that maintained ties with Pyongyang, which has been under international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program. On Monday, Malaysia joined a chorus of international condemnation over North Korea’s launch of four ballistic missiles.

That same evening, North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol left Malaysia after Malaysian officials had declared him “persona non grata” for publicly criticizing a local probe into the Feb. 13 assassination of Kim Jong Nam at a Kuala Lumpur area airport, and because North Korea had not apologized for the envoy’s outbursts.

Soon after, Pyongyang fired back by declaring Malaysia’s ambassador to North Korea officially unwelcome. On Tuesday, the regime under dictator Kim Jong Un announced it was preventing Malaysian citizens from leaving North Korea.

Pyongyang’s foreign ministry notified the Malaysian embassy that the exit ban would stay in effect “until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of the DPRK in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case that occurred in Malaysia,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Tuesday.

An official at Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 11 Malaysian citizens are in North Korea, including three staffers at the embassy, two who work there for the U.N. World Food Program, and their families.

“All 11 of them are currently safe. This is all I can say at the moment,” Reezal Merican Naina Merican, Malaysia’s deputy foreign minister, said Tuesday on national television.

“We have no tourists, no students there. At the moment, the foreign ministry is in touch with them.”

‘Not hurrying the probe’

Before he was kicked out, the North Korean envoy had appeared twice before the media’s cameras to criticize the integrity and neutrality of the Malaysian investigation into the fatal poisoning of Kim Jong Nam with a banned nerve agent, as local police have ruled.

Ambassador Kang was also angry because Malaysia had refused a North Korean request to turn over Kim’s body without a post-mortem and not without his next-of-kin coming forward to claim the body and provide a DNA sample.

So far, no one has come forward. Last week, a high-level delegation from North Korea arrived in Malaysia to hold discussions with local officials over taking custody of his remains.

Malaysian officials have not commented about such negotiations. They are waiting for Kim’s next-of-kin to come forward and give DNA needed for a positive identification of the body, Police Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said Tuesday.

“We are confident of getting a DNA sample,” Khalid told a news conference Tuesday in George Town, Penang state, where he was taking part in a regional meeting on international narcotics enforcement.

“It would be soon. For security reasons, we cannot tell you,” he said, adding, “We will have to give them [the family] some time. We are not hurrying the probe. But we will only settle for the DNA sample.”

Malaysian authorities, meanwhile, have two women in custody, an Indonesian and Vietnamese who have been charged with murder as Kim’s suspected assassins.

Police also identified seven North Koreans as being wanted for questioning in the case, including the second secretary at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur and an employee at Air Koryo, North Korea’s state-run airline.

These two men and a third North Korean suspect are thought to be hiding out inside the embassy, and officers were standing watch outside the embassy for them to come out, the police chief said.

“We will wait, even if it takes five years,” Khalid said.

Meanwhile, four of the seven North Koreans left Malaysia on the day of Kim’s murder and an eighth North Korean, a trained chemist who was arrested as a suspect in the case, was deported last week after police released him because of a lack of evidence.


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