Wed Mar 8, 2017 7:3AM
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (photo by AFP)
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (photo by AFP)

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak says his country does not intend to sever ties with North Korea, amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries that have led to mutual travel bans.

Tensions began with the killing earlier of the North Korean leader’s exiled half-brother in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia said some eight North Korean nationals, including a diplomat, were wanted for questioning in the killing. That triggered Pyongyang’s reaction, which also demanded that the body of the victim, Kim Jong-nam, be handed over and that no autopsy be conducted on it by Malaysian authorities, who refused to meet either of the requests.

Subsequent investigations found out that Kim had been killed with an internationally-banned chemical agent.

A full diplomatic falling out seemed increasingly possible on Tuesday, when North Korea banned Malaysian nationals from leaving the country. Malaysia responded with a ban of its own.

But Najib seemed to bring some kind of deescalation to the unfolding crisis on Wednesday by ruling out an intention to sever ties with Pyongyang.

“We are a country that’s friendly to them,” the Malaysian prime minister said on Wednesday, referring to the North Koreans. “We didn’t pick a quarrel with them but when a crime has been committed, especially when chemical weapons have been used in Malaysia, we are duty-bound to protect the interest of Malaysians.”

Malaysian police officers keep watch behind a police line drawn across the entrance to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, following a directive barring embassy staff from leaving the country, March 7, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Malaysian police have arrested the two women who carried out the assassination using the VX nerve agent, which is a chemical listed by the United Nations (UN) as a weapon of mass destruction.

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A North Korean suspect was also briefly detained and later released due to a lack of evidence connecting him with the murder.

Najib further tried to offer reassurances about the safety of the 11 Malaysians still residing in North Korea, saying that he was seeking to determine Pyongyang’s potential demands in exchange for a lifting of the travel ban on the citizens of Malaysia.

Earlier, Najib had slammed the North Korean ban as abhorrent in a statement. “This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.”

He instructed police “to prevent 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.”

Malaysian police reportedly believe that two of the North Koreans sought in Kim’s assassination case are hiding in Pyongyang’s Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The UN has urged calm between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang, calling on them to settle their differences through “established diplomatic practice.”