Malaysia to keep embassy in N. Korea open amid row

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak alluded that negotiations would take place but declined to offer details.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak alluded that negotiations would take place but declined to offer details.PHOTO: REUTERS

Bilateral ties needed to provide KL with channel to talk to Pyongyang: Najib

Malaysia says it will keep its embassy open in Pyongyang and not sever diplomatic ties with North Korea to resolve their diplomatic stand- off peacefully.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters yesterday that bilateral relations are needed to "provide us with a channel because you need the channel to talk and negotiate" with North Korea.

On Tuesday, North Korea announced that Malaysians in North Korea are barred from leaving the country, a move that Datuk Seri Najib labelled as "effectively holding our citizens hostage". Malaysia reciprocated hours later, stopping North Koreans from leaving Malaysia.

Mr Najib alluded that negotiations would take place but declined to offer details.

"It's a sensitive matter. Sometimes it's best conducted in secrecy so we can achieve the desired results," he said in Parliament.

There are 11 Malaysians in North Korea at the moment, comprising mainly embassy staff and their families. Mr Najib said they are all safe and free to conduct their daily activities in Pyongyang.

Talks with North Korea would likely be managed by the Foreign Ministry, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters on the sidelines of a separate event.

"Their (North Korea) delegation is here in town and not back yet in Pyongyang. Wisma Putra (the Foreign Ministry) will be discussing with them to resolve the matters amicably," said Datuk Seri Zahid.

"We believe they are going to act rationally and what's important is for us to maintain our diplomatic relationship with them," he added, in response to concerns over North Korea's reaction.

Tensions between the two countries have grown following the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.

Mr Kim Jong Nam was attacked in Malaysia's airport on Feb 13 while waiting to board a flight to Macau. Malaysian police say preliminary autopsy results showed he died from the VX nerve agent, a highly toxic chemical weapon. But North Korea disputes this, saying he died of a "heart stroke", and has demanded that his body be handed over to its government. The reclusive regime identified the deceased as Kim Chol, using the name stated in the passport he was carrying.

North Korea has accused Malaysia of dishonest probes and conspiring with North Korea's enemies, causing ties to sour. Malaysia responded by recalling its ambassador from Pyongyang and expelling North Ko- rea's ambassador from the country.

"We didn't pick a quarrel with them but when a crime has been committed, especially when chemical weapons have been used in Malaysia, we are duty-bound to protect the interest of Malaysians," said Mr Najib.

The United Nations called for calm and asked that both countries settle differences through "established diplomatic practice", the organisation's spokesman said.

The United States and South Korea have blamed North Korea for ordering Mr Kim Jong Nam's killing, a claim that Pyongyang denies. Yesterday, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel called the "hijacking of a territory by a foreign power" for a "political assassination" reprehensible.

There are over 170 North Koreans in Malaysia working as miners in the state of Sarawak, Chief Minister Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg revealed yesterday. About 140 of these people have expired work permits and are being rounded up by state immigration officers, pending further instructions from the federal government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia to keep embassy in N. Korea open amid row'. Print Edition | Subscribe