Two Malaysians leave North Korea, nine more stranded in Kim Jong Nam murder row

Journalists crowd outside the gate of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 9, 2017.
Journalists crowd outside the gate of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 9, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - The UN's World Food Programme said two Malaysian employees were permitted to leave North Korea on Thursday (March 9), as Kuala Lumpur negotiates for nine more citizens trapped by a diplomatic row over the murder of Kim Jong Nam.

North Korean barred Malaysians from leaving on Tuesday, prompting a tit-for-tat response from Kuala Lumpur as diplomatic tensions soared over the investigation into Kim's murder with the banned VX nerve agent at Malaysia's main airport last month.

"The staff members are international civil servants and not representatives of their national government," the UN agency said in a statement, adding that the pair, who worked on WFP food programmes in North Korea, had now arrived in Beijing.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said Kuala Lumpur would negotiate to ensure that the remaining nine nationals - three embassy staff and six family members - who he said were safe but trapped in Pyongyang, would be allowed to leave.

"The government will do everything possible to ensure that our citizens continue to be safe and will be able to return to Malaysia," he said in a statement.

But Malaysia will not allow North Koreans to leave the country and "will not relent from our firm approach," Najib added.

The government has urged all mosques to hold special prayer sessions from Friday "until this political turmoil is over".

Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for Kim's assassination and Malaysian police are seeking seven North Korean suspects in their probe - four of whom left Malaysia on the day of the murder.

The police chief has said he believes the other three are hiding in North Korea's embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Last week, police released the only North Korean they had arrested for lack of evidence.

Experts have suggested Pyongyang is using the travel ban as leverage to try to prevent the arrest of key suspects holed up in its embassy.

An autopsy revealed that VX nerve agent, a substance so dangerous it is classed as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN, was used to kill Kim, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Two women - one Vietnamese and one Indonesian - have been charged with the murder. Airport CCTV footage shows them approaching the 45-year-old and apparently smearing his face with a cloth.

Police say he suffered a seizure and died less than 20 minutes later.

The diplomatic dispute erupted last month when police rejected North Korean diplomats' demands to hand over Kim's body.

North Korea has never confirmed the identity of the dead man, but has denounced the Malaysian investigation as an attempt to smear it, saying he most likely died of a heart attack.

North Korean ambassador Kang Chol slammed what he called a "pre-targeted investigation by the Malaysian police" on Monday, just before leaving the country after being expelled.

Pyongyang retaliated by formally ordering out his counterpart - who had already been recalled for consultations.

Malaysia has also cancelled a rare visa-free travel deal with North Korea, with Malaysian football authorities banning the national team from playing an Asian Cup qualifying match in Pyongyang.