After N. Korea cuts ties, Malaysia orders its diplomats out

·6 min read

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — Malaysia said Friday it’ll order all North Korean diplomats to leave the country within 48 hours.

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry’s announcement Friday came after North Korea said it was terminating diplomatic ties with Malaysia to protest its decision to extradite a North Korean to the United States to face money laundering charges.

The Malaysian ministry says the government “will issue an order for all the diplomatic staff and their dependents at the Embassy of the (North Korea) in Kuala Lumpur to leave Malaysia within 48 hours from today.”

Earlier, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the money laundering charges against the man are an “absurd fabrication and (a) sheer plot” orchestrated by the United States.

It said Malaysia “committed super-large hostile act ... in subservience to the U.S. pressure” and that the United States will “pay a due price.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story is below:

North Korea said Friday it has terminated diplomatic ties with Malaysia over its decision to extradite a North Korean criminal suspect to the United States. It’s the latest development in growing animosity between Washington and Pyongyang as the North ramps up pressure on the Biden administration over a nuclear standoff.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the money laundering charges against the man are an “absurd fabrication and (a) sheer plot” orchestrated by the United States, “the principal enemy of our state.” The statement said Malaysia “committed super-large hostile act ... in subservience to the U.S. pressure” and that the United States will “pay a due price.”

It’s unclear whether or when North Korea will pull its diplomats out of Malaysia since it has a history of backing away from threats.

Ties between North Korea and Malaysia have been virtually frozen since the 2017 slaying of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Observers believe no Malaysian diplomat is currently in North Korea. Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry website said the North Korean Embassy is led by Kim Yu Song, the chargé d’affaires and councillor , and six other staff.

“Yes, we will be shutting down. We are now discussing the plans with our staff here and liaising with our government,” Kim was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.

North Korea has long used Malaysia as a crucial economic hub where it handled trade, labour exports and some illicit businesses in Southeast Asia. Experts say North Korea is taking a tough stance over the extradition because it sees it as a pressure tactic against the North.

“North Korea is taking a hard line because it thinks it must not back down (over the extradition) as it’ll then have a war of nerves with the Biden government in the next four years,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korea’s Korea University.

Nam said North Korea also likely worries that similar cases involving North Korean nationals could occur in other Southeast Asian countries.

Threatening to cut ties with Malaysia was one of the North’s strongest options to express its anger with the Biden administration without jeopardizing an eventual return to nuclear negotiations with Washington, said Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

North Korea has insisted it won’t engage in talks with Washington unless it abandons what Pyongyang’s perceives as a “hostile” policy. But experts say North Korea will eventually seek to return to diplomacy to find ways to get sanctions relief and revive its moribund economy.

Earlier this month, Malaysia’s top court ruled North Korean Mun Chol Myong could be extradited, rejecting his assertion the U.S. charge was politically motivated. Mun had lived in Malaysia for a decade and was arrested in May 2019 after U.S. authorities requested his extradition.

In his affidavit, Mun denied U.S. accusations that he was involved in supplying luxury goods from Singapore to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. He denied that he had laundered funds through front companies and that he issued fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to his country.

After that ruling, Mun’s family hired a lawyer to challenge the legality of the extradition. Lawyer Emile Ezra said the new legal bid centred on Mun’s right to a fair hearing after the court refused to accept his affidavit, and also an injunction to stop his extradition.

The North Korean statement said Mun has been sent to the United States. Ezra said police haven’t replied to his query and that he cannot confirm if Mun was still in Malaysia. He said he was informed by the prison on Wednesday that Mun was surrendered to police custody.

Home Ministry officials in Malaysia couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

North Korea and Malaysia established diplomatic ties in 1973, but their relations suffered major setbacks over the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam.

Two women — one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese — were charged with colluding with four North Koreans to murder Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX nerve agent. The four North Koreans fled Malaysia the day Kim died. The women were later released.

Malaysian officials never officially accused North Korea of involvement in Kim’s death, but prosecutors made it clear throughout the trial that they suspected a North Korean connection. North Korea denied the victim was Kim Jong Nam and disputed it had any role in the man’s death.

South Korea’s spy service said North Korea had for several years tried to kill Kim Jong Nam, though he once sent a letter to Kim Jong Un begging for the lives of himself and his family members after an assassination attempt. Longtime North Korea watchers believe Kim Jong Un ordered his brother’s killing as part of efforts to remove potential rivals and cement his grip on power.

Amid a diplomatic tit-for-tat, Malaysia scrapped visa-free entry for North Koreans and expelled the North’s ambassador before North Korea banned all Malaysians from exiting the country.

Cutting diplomatic ties would require each country to formally shut down their embassies, withdraw diplomats and liquidate local property. “But if North Korea doesn’t take any action, their diplomatic ties will be maintained. Malaysia won’t ask why they aren’t following through with” their threat, said analyst Lee Jaehyon at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

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Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

Hyung-Jin Kim And Eileen Ng, The Associated Press