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International relations

Malaysia in diplomatic hostage crisis with North Korea

Kuala Lumpur opts not to sever relations without return of nationals from Pyongyang

CK TAN, Nikkei staff writer | North Korea

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia has tempered its fiery exchanges with North Korea in the wake of the assassination in Kuala Lumpur last month of North Korean exile Kim Jong Nam, and has said it will keep channels open with the communist state while its nationals are prevented from leaving.    

"I think we should resolve the matter amicably," Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia's deputy prime minister told reporters, echoing the government's conciliatory new tack on Wednesday after mudslinging by officials from both countries since the weekend led to a mutual travel ban on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said his government will do everything necessary to bring home the 11 staff and their family members from the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang.

Kuala Lumpur responded to Pyongyang's travel ban by closing all its points of departure to North Koreans in Malaysia, who are estimated to number around 1,000.

"Diplomatic relations between Malaysia and North Korea will not be cut because we need the channel to communicate with them to find a solution," Najib said on his blog.

On Saturday, Malaysia ordered North Korean ambassador Kang Chol out of the country after "insulting" authorities investigating the Feb.13 assassination of Kim, the estranged older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Before flying off on Monday, Kang said Malaysia's decision to declare him persona non grata was "extreme" and warned of repercussions. Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said he would not hesitate to sever diplomatic ties over Kang's remarks.

On Tuesday, North Korea delivered on Kang's threat with a directive preventing Malaysian diplomats from leaving the country without a "fair settlement" of the murder investigation.

North Korea claims Kim died of a heart attack and not from being smeared with a substance containing VX, a nerve agent banned globally as a weapon of mass destruction. Kim was fatally attacked in a busy airport terminal as he was about to leave Kuala Lumpur for Macau, and the incident was captured by surveillance cameras.

Pyongyang wants Kim's body handed over, and has refused to cooperate with investigators who are looking for three North Korean men believed to be holding up at its embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Najib described Pyongyang's move to restrict Malaysian diplomats as an "abhorrent act" that was tantamount to holding them hostage and contrary to international norms.

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