9 Malaysians stranded in N. Korea back home today

A van said to be carrying the body of Mr Kim Jong Nam leaving a hospital compound in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. The body was sent back to North Korea after the "receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned" there, said Mr Najib
A van said to be carrying the body of Mr Kim Jong Nam leaving a hospital compound in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. The body was sent back to North Korea after the "receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned" there, said Mr Najib.PHOTO: REUTERS

The nine Malaysians stranded in North Korea - victims of a spat between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang following the assassination of Mr Kim Jong Nam - will return home today.

Both countries appeared to have finally reached a deal to end a three-week stand-off that led to their citizens being barred from returning home.

"They took off from Pyongyang today at 7.45pm Malaysia time, and will land in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow at around 5am," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement late yesterday.

He added that the body of Mr Kim, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had also been sent back to North Korea after the "receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned" there.

The body was left unclaimed for six weeks in a mortuary here. "Up to last week, the next-of-kin were still afraid to claim it," a government source told The Straits Times.

The Straits Times also understands that negotiations between officials from both sides were largely conducted in Beijing and facilitated by China.

Sources said that the nine Malaysians were supposed to return on Tuesday morning via Beijing, but a deal broke down at the 11th hour on Monday.

Malaysia has said that an autopsy revealed that Mr Kim, who lived in exile, died after exposure to the lethal VX nerve agent, listed as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations.

Two women - an Indonesian and a Vietnamese - have been charged with murdering him by smearing the poison on his face just before he was to board a flight to Macau from Kuala Lumpur on Feb 13.

Police are seeking seven North Koreans to aid in investigations - four of whom are believed to have fled to Pyongyang on the day of the killing. The other three, including a senior diplomat, are believed to be holed up in the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Reports claimed that the trio also left yesterday on the same plane that carried Mr Kim's body.

The nine Malaysians who were stranded - three diplomats and six family members - are the only Malaysians known to be in North Korea, while about 300 North Koreans are in Malaysia.

North Korea has accused Malaysia of subverting investigations as part of a conspiracy against it, a charge that Kuala Lumpur has dismissed. This led to the diplomatic spat between the two that resulted in both countries' ambassadors being expelled, and reciprocal travel bans barring Malaysians from leaving North Korea and vice versa.

Datuk Seri Najib said that with the nine Malaysians being freed, Kuala Lumpur would also lift the travel ban on the North Koreans.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline '9 Malaysians stranded in N. Korea back home today'. Print Edition | Subscribe