KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Thursday (March 9) North Korea has assured Malaysia of the safety of its nine citizens stranded there following a travel ban imposed by the North this week, as two Malaysian United Nations employees left the country.
In a statement carried on his Facebook page on Thursday, Datuk Seri Najib said the North Korean leadership had assured the safety of the Malaysians and their freedom to carry out their daily activities, even though they were not allowed to leave the country.
"Even though they are refrained from leaving the country, the North Korean government have assured us of their safety and they are free to go about their daily lives. The government will continue to work on reaching the best solution on this issue," he said.
Mr Najib said he had spoken on the phone with Mr Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain, a counsellor at the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang, adding that he and the other Malaysians there were safe.
Earlier, Mr Najib on Twitter also confirmed a report that the two UN employees working for the World Food Programme (WFP) had left Pyongyang and said they were in Beijing.
“Thank God, 2 of our citizens under @WFP , Stella Lim & Nyanaprakash Muniandy, were allowed to leave Pyongyang & (have) arrived in Beijing.”
Reuters had reported their departure, citing a WFP spokeswoman.
“WFP confirms that two WFP staff of Malaysian nationality have left DPR Korea and arrived in Beijing today,” Frances Kennedy, spokeswoman at the WFP headquarters in Italy, told Reuters in a statement.
The Malaysian government, which has ruled out severing ties with North Korea, is currently negotiating for a travel ban to be lifted on the remaining citizens stranded there.
North Korea had barred Malaysians from leaving on Tuesday, sparking tit-for-tat action by Malaysia as diplomatic tensions escalated over an investigation into the murder in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In another statement issued on Thursday, Mr Najib said the government was in the process of establishing the reasons and motives behind the actions of North Korea.
He also repeated his pledge that the government would do everything to ensure their safe return home.
“I pledge that the government will do everything possible to ensure that our citizens continue to be safe and will be able to return to Malaysia,” he said.
Adding that the government would not back down from its firm approach on the issue, he said a National Security Council meeting he had called on Tuesday had upheld its decision not to allow any North Koreans to leave Malaysia.
“This is a sensitive issue. Therefore, the government has decided that all negotiations and discussions will be conducted behind closed doors,” he said.
A National Security Council meeting was also held in Parliament on Thursday, but officials declined to comment on the meeting.
The United Nations has called for calm between Malaysia and North Korea and urged them to settle their differences through “established diplomatic practice.”
Mr Kim Jong Nam was killed on Feb 13 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Malaysian police believe he was assaulted by two women who smeared his face with VX, a chemical classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.