The body of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader who was killed in Kuala Lumpur last month, has been moved from the mortuary to a funeral parlour, triggering intense speculation early yesterday about an imminent resolution to a stand-off between North Korea and Malaysia.
Officials from both sides were negotiating in Beijing last week for the release of nine Malaysians trapped for three weeks in Pyongyang. The three diplomats and six family members were barred from leaving North Korea amid an ongoing spat over the Feb 13 murder of Mr Kim.
Sources said all nine were due to fly out of Pyongyang to Beijing yesterday, before making the overnight journey to Kuala Lumpur.
However, the absence of an official statement by late evening from Prime Minister Najib Razak dampened expectations.
Talk of a deal also seemed premature late last night when a van appearing to carry the body returned to the mortuary, and security was heightened around the building after a lull since Sunday.
Malaysian Health Minister S. Subramaniam told reporters on Sunday that discussions were "ongoing" and a decision should be reached "very soon".
He added that police investigations would continue regardless of any agreement between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur.
North Korea has denied widespread claims that it ordered the killing, insisting the dead man was a North Korean citizen named Kim Chol who died of a "heart stroke", contradicting the official autopsy which concluded that he was poisoned.
The body, which has been in the Kuala Lumpur Hospital since the murder, was due to depart Malaysia for China, a government source told The Straits Times.
However, it was unclear if the body would be handed over to the next of kin, or to the North Korean government, which has demanded custody of the dead man who was travelling on a diplomatic passport. "Up to Sunday, the next of kin were still afraid to claim it," the source said.
The Straits Times also understands that negotiations were largely conducted in and facilitated by Beijing between representatives of both countries.
Malaysia has said the autopsy revealed Mr Kim died after exposure to the lethal VX nerve agent, a chemical 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 due to board a flight to Macau.
Malaysian police are seeking more than seven North Koreans in connection with the case. Four suspects are believed to have fled to Pyongyang on the day of the killing, while three others, including a senior diplomat, are believed to be hiding out in the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
One of those holed up in the embassy has been filmed by Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi playing snooker on the second floor of the two-storey building.
Bernama news agency said four men in plainclothes, believed to be Special Branch policemen, had entered the embassy compound on Sunday and were in there for about three hours. There was no official word on the purpose of their visit.
Pyongyang has accused Kuala Lumpur of subverting investigations as part of an international conspiracy to tarnish its image.
This led to an escalating spat between the two which resulted in their respective ambassadors being expelled, and reciprocal travel bans that also left more than 300 North Koreans stranded in Malaysia.