KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia may deport dozens of North Koreans whose work permits have expired despite having barred citizens of the secretive North-east Asian nation from leaving the country amid a tense stand-off with Pyongyang over the Feb 13 murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters on Monday (March 13) that as Home Minister, he would decide "soon" on the 140 overstaying workers - 37 of whom have already been detained - in Sarawak, even as Malaysia and North Korea negotiate over a diplomatic stand-off that has left their nationals stranded in the other's territory.
"Today, in a short while, I will make a decision as to whether they will remain in detention or be deported back to North Korea. We will be rational in making any decision, so that it will bear the best result in terms of diplomatic relations and humanitarianism," he said.
South Korea and the United States accuse Pyongyang of assassinating the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea has denied the claim, accusing Kuala Lumpur of subverting investigations and conspiring with its enemies.
The spat has resulted in both nations expelling the other's envoy, and Pyongyang then banning Malaysians from leaving North Korea last week. Kuala Lumpur reciprocated, accusing North Korea of holding its citizens hostage. Nine Malaysians - three diplomats and their families - are stuck in Pyongyang, while at least 315 North Koreans are in Malaysia.
Datuk Seri Zahid said that negotiations are ongoing, while foreign ministry secretary general Ramlan Ibrahim told reporters "internal consultations" have begun.
With police last Friday finally confirming the identity of the deceased as Mr Kim Jong Nam, Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam said on Monday the government would be able to reach out to his next-of-kin, and expect to finalise custody of the body within three weeks.
"We are told that he has a wife or wives or children, so we hope that those people would respond and come forward to claim the body," he said.