By Joseph Sipalan
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The body of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was embalmed this week in Kuala Lumpur, with no family member coming forward to claim the remains and as a diplomatic spat with Pyongyang drags on.
It's been over a month since Kim Jong Nam was murdered on Feb. 13, when Malaysian police say two women smeared super toxic VX nerve agent on his face at the budget terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Kim died within 20 minutes of the attack, before reaching the hospital. Since then, his body has been at a Kuala Lumpur morgue, and police say they will only hand it over to his next of kin. No one so far has come forward to claim the body, Malaysian authorities have said.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters outside parliament on Tuesday the body has been embalmed so it can be preserved longer.
"It's an effort to preserve the body, because if it is kept in the mortuary it might decompose so we did this to preserve the body," Zahid said.
The body was secretly taken out of the morgue for the embalming on Sunday night, avoiding the attention of dozens of media representatives stationed outside.
The murder, and Malaysia's attempt to investigate North Koreans inside Pyongyang's embassy in Kuala Lumpur, has sparked a diplomatic meltdown between two countries with once strong ties.
North Korea is preventing three Malaysian diplomats and their six family members from leaving the country, sparking tit-for-tat action by Malaysia.
Zahid said the two countries are still negotiating, but did not elaborate.
Zahid also said Malaysia will soon deport 50 North Korean workers who overstayed their visa in the Borneo state of Sarawak. They were among 176 North Koreans working in Sarawak.
The workers were employed in mines and construction sites in the state. Zahid has said about 315 North Koreans remain in the country with valid visas.
Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in the Chinese territory of Macau under Beijing's protection, had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic control of the isolated, nuclear-armed North Korea.
South Korean intelligence officers say Kim Jong Un had issued standing orders for the elimination of his elder half-brother.
Video footage of a man claiming to be the son of Kim Jong Nam appeared last week, in which he said he was lying low with his mother and sister.
Malaysia has refused North Korea's request to release the body without an autopsy and investigation. It expelled the North Korean ambassador over his remarks questioning the investigations.
This angered North Korea, who then barred Malaysians from leaving the country. In response, Malaysia briefly blockaded the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur last week.
Malaysian police have identified eight North Koreans wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of Kim Jong Nam, some of them hiding in the North Korean embassy. A Vietnamese woman and an Indonesian woman have already been charged in the case.
(Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Bill Tarrant)