KUALA LUMPUR • The United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) said two of its Malaysian staff left North Korea yesterday after Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang banned each other's citizens from leaving their countries in a row over the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam.
"The staff members are international civil servants and not representatives of their national government. They work on WFP's programmes in DPR Korea," the UN agency said in a statement, adding that they had arrived in Beijing.
North Korea had barred Malaysians from leaving the country on Tuesday, sparking tit-for-tat action by Malaysia as diplomatic tensions escalated over an investigation into the murder last month of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak posted on Facebook that he had been briefed about the release.
"Stella Lim and Nyanaprakash Muniandy have both safely arrived in Beijing," he wrote.
In a separate statement, Datuk Seri Najib again ruled out severing ties with North Korea, with whom he said Kuala Lumpur must negotiate to secure its citizens' release, but reaffirmed that Malaysia would not allow North Koreans to leave the country.
"We will not relent from our firm approach," he said. He had earlier accused North Korea of treating Malaysians like hostages.
"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 added.
A senior government official said that Malaysia was not responsible for securing the release of the two UN staff. "They carry UN laissez-passer documents," he said.
In another Facebook post yesterday, Mr Najib said that he had spoken to Malaysia's counsellor in Pyongyang, Mr Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain. "I would like to update that he, his family along with all of the other Malaysians in North Korea are safe," he wrote.
The departure of the two Malaysians working for the WFP meant nine still remain at the embassy in Pyongyang. They include three diplomats and six family members.
Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for Mr Kim's assassination, and Kuala Lumpur wants to question several North Koreans over the murder.
An autopsy revealed that VX nerve agent, a substance classed as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN, was used to kill Mr Kim.
Two women - a Vietnamese and an Indonesian - have been charged with the murder. Airport closed-circuit television footage shows them approaching the 45-year-old and apparently smearing his face with a cloth. Police say he had a seizure and died less than 20 minutes later.
Police are seeking seven North Korean suspects, four of whom left Malaysia on the day of the murder. The police chief says he believes the other three are hiding in North Korea's embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
The diplomatic dispute erupted last month when police rejected North Korean diplomats' demands that they hand over Mr Kim's body.
The North has insisted that the dead man is named Kim Chol, and that he died of a heart attack. It has denounced the Malaysian investigation as an attempt to smear it.
Kuala Lumpur announced the expulsion of the North's ambassador over the weekend and Pyongyang retaliated in kind. Malaysia has also cancelled visa-free travel for North Koreans entering the country.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS