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International relations

Malaysia gives North Korea's embassy staff 48 hours to leave

Kuala Lumpur blasts Pyongyang for cutting ties after support 'during difficult times'

Police officers patrol outside the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on March 19.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia on Friday called North Korea's decision to sever bilateral ties unfriendly, unconstructive and unconducive to regional stability, giving Pyongyang's embassy staff and their families 48 hours to leave the country.

"Malaysia had always considered the DPRK a close partner since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1973," the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, using the abbreviation for the North's formal name. "Malaysia was among the earliest to have done so and continued to support the DPRK during their difficult times."

Earlier on Friday, North Korea's state media had announced Pyongyang was cutting ties over a Malaysian court ruling that a North Korean citizen can be extradited to the U.S.

Before the Malaysian ministry's response, a local newspaper, the New Straits Times, reported that the North Korean ministry was already preparing to close its doors. "Yes, we will be shutting down," the paper quoted embassy charge d'affaires Kim Yu Song as saying. "We are now discussing the plans with our staff here and liaising with our government."

Nikkei Asia joined other media staked out across the street from the embassy on Friday afternoon. The area was calm, with a few foreign-plated vehicles seen entering the premises. None of the cars stopped to answer questions from reporters.

Ties between Malaysia and North Korea have been chilly since 2017, when Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women who smeared the chemical weapon VX on his face. The two, an Indonesian and a Vietnamese, at one point faced murder charges, but they are now believed to have been duped into becoming unwitting assassins.

The order is widely suspected of having come from Kim Jong Un himself, though this cannot be proved.

In its statement on Friday, the ministry stressed that Malaysia had consistently pursued efforts to improve ties even after Kim Jong Nam's "deplorable assassination."

Malaysia did close its embassy in Pyongyang shortly after the killing, agreeing to return Kim Jong Nam's body in exchange for the release of its staff. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad subsequently expressed his intention to reopen the Pyongyang mission, but did not follow through before his government collapsed early last year.

The Malaysian ministry on Friday said it has ordered the Pyongyang embassy to be closed permanently.

The final split comes after North Korean citizen Mun Chol Myong earlier this month lost his fight against extradition to the U.S., where he is wanted on money laundering allegations in connection with illicit shipments to the North.

According to Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's Foreign Ministry called the extradition a "nefarious act and unpardonably heavy crime" that destroyed "the entire foundation of the bilateral relations based on the respect for sovereignty."

Malaysia's ministry rejected this claim, insisting Mun's case has been handled in accordance with the principles of justice, the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.

"The government of Malaysia had to put aside a series of the DPRK's demarches for the Malaysian executive to intervene in our judiciary and legal system," the ministry added. "The rights of Mun Chol Myong while in custody in Malaysia were also guaranteed and fulfilled, including his access to his own defense counsel, as well as to consular assistance and visits by his family."

North Korea has apparently determined the case warrants abandoning one of its few diplomatic links. The isolated country has only 47 embassies worldwide, according to the East-West Center and National Committee. Eight are in Association of Southeast Asian Nations states -- the only gaps in the 10-member bloc being Brunei and the Philippines.

A report published in late 2017 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs noted that North Koreans came to work in Malaysia's mining, construction, restaurant and other sectors, and that Malaysia once talked of "serving as the 'gateway' for North Korean access to Southeast Asia's markets."

The report went on to say that aside from the North's diplomacy, "Southeast Asia has also been a significant site of illicit economic and financial activity, with troubling security repercussions both within the region and beyond. North Korea's arms export operation through Malaysia has been relatively well-documented."

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