KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is protecting its “sovereignty and dignity” by expelling the North Korean ambassador, the prime minister said Monday, as relations between the countries unravelled further over the poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader.
The bizarre murder case — and the ensuing diplomatic battle — appear to have cost North Korea one of its few friends in the international community.
Just hours after the North Korean ambassador headed to the airport to leave Malaysia, North Korea responded in kind, announcing that it was ordering Malaysia’s envoy out of Pyongyang.
But the move was symbolic. Malaysia had already recalled its diplomat shortly after the killing.
In an attack many believe was orchestrated by North Korea, Kim Jong Nam died less than 20 minutes after two women wiped VX nerve agent on his face at Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13, authorities say. The women, one from Vietnam and one from Indonesia, have been charged with murder.
North Korea has denied any role in the killing and accused Malaysia of conspiring with its enemies. North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol rejected a Malaysian autopsy that found Kim was killed with VX, a banned chemical weapon.
Malaysian authorities declared Kang “persona non grata” on Saturday and gave him two days to leave the country. He arrived late Monday afternoon at the Kuala Lumpur airport, where he told reporters that Malaysia was doing “great harm” to the countries’ relations.
Soon after, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Malaysia’s ambassador would also be expelled.
Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Raja Nushirwan Zainal Abidin, said North Korea’s decision to expel the Malaysia envoy had been expected.
North Korea is trying to retrieve Kim’s body, but has not acknowledged that the victim is Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, as Malaysian government officials have confirmed.
Ri Tong Il, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations, has said Kim probably died of a heart attack because he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
The two women accused of poisoning Kim say they were duped into thinking they were taking part in a harmless prank.
Malaysia is looking for seven North Korean suspects, four of whom are believed to have left the country on the day of the killing. The three others, including an official at the North Korean Embassy and an employee of Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, are believed to still be in Malaysia.
Also Monday, the fallout from the diplomatic battle reached the sports field.
Citing security concerns, Malaysia won’t allow its national soccer team to travel to North Korea for a qualifying match for the 2019 Asian Cup, the Football Association of Malaysia said. Malaysia was due to play North Korea on March 28.