Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has warned North Korea to ensure the safety of the Malaysian nationals stuck in Korea amid an evolving diplomatic row between the two states.
“Respect us and make sure our people are safe,” Najib said solemnly, in reference to the Malaysian nationals barred from leaving North Korea.
Speaking on Sunday, Najib said Malaysia would reciprocate respect when it receives it.
Tensions abruptly emerged between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang when a man identified as the North Korean leader’s exiled half-brother was assassinated in the Malaysian capital on February 13.
Malaysia said the assassination, carried out at a public terminal of the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, was conducted using a highly toxic, internationally banned nerve agent. Malaysian authorities said some eight North Korean nationals, including a diplomat at the North Korean Embassy, were sought for questioning.
Kuala Lumpur also went ahead with an autopsy on the body of the victim, Kim Jong-nam, despite objections from Pyongyang.
As tensions grew, North Korea barred nine Malaysian nationals from leaving the country. Malaysia soon enforced a ban of its own on the North Korean nationals in the Southeast Asian country.
The diplomatic row has also seen both sides declaring each other’s ambassadors “personae non gratae,” ordering them to leave.
In a related development, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said on Sunday that his country would resolve its dispute with North Korea on its own and that there was no need for “third parties” to get involved.
“Of course, our priority is on the remaining nine Malaysians in Pyongyang and the foreign minister has made every effort to ensure their return to Malaysia. However at the same time we also want to make sure that the North Korean nationals who are in this country will be allowed to return home when the time comes should they make the same effort,” he said.
Separately, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said on Saturday that Kuala Lumpur would begin formal negotiations with North Korea in the coming days to discuss the lifting of the mutual bans on nationals.
Malaysian police have been ordered to stop hundreds of North Korean citizens from leaving the country until the safety of the Malaysians in North Korea is assured.
Malaysia has not directly blamed North Korea for the assassination. That accusation has been leveled by South Korea, the North’s long-time adversary.
Two women arrested by Malaysia for carrying out the assassination could be hanged if convicted.
Deadline to claim the body
Although the victim’s identity was generally known, it was confirmed by Malaysian authorities only recently.
Malaysia’s health minister on Monday asked Kim’s relatives to come forward and claim his body.
“Now, with the positive identification of the body, we are told that he had a wife or wives and children. So we hope that those people will respond and come forward to claim the body,” Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam told reporters.
“I think after identification, we’ll give ourselves about two to three weeks to solve the problem,” he said, warning that if no one claimed the body in the period of time, the government would take action on its own. “In the absence of that, then we will address it as a government.”
So far, Pyongyang has refused to acknowledge that the victim was indeed the North Korean leader’s half-brother, and no next-of-kin have claimed the body.