A diplomatic spat between North Korea and Malaysia is escalating over the Southeast Asian country’s decision to extradite a North Korean person to the United States to face money laundering charges.
In protest over Malaysia’s decision, North Korea said Friday it would sever diplomatic ties, signaling even further diplomatic isolation for the hermit kingdom.
In response to Pyongyang’s move, Malaysia ordered North Korean diplomats stationed in Kuala Lumpur to leave the country within 48 hours.
According to local news reports, the staff of the North Korean Embassy vacated the premises in Kuala Lumpur and left for an airport at around 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Issuing a statement before leaving, North Korean counselor Kim Yu-song claimed “this incident is an outright product of an anti-DPRK (North Korea) conspiracy created from a heinous policy by the United States.”
The end of a 48-year diplomatic relationship comes after the two countries kicked out each other’s ambassadors and the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang was shut down following the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.
The two sides had begun talks to normalize ties, but no progress was made as a new prime minister took office in Malaysia last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
North Korea has seen a number of its ambassadors expelled after it went ahead with its sixth nuclear test in June 2017.
Mexico was the first to expel the North’s top diplomat there upon declaring him persona non grata in September 2017.
Peru, Kuwait, Spain and Italy followed suit. Germany and Myanmar made some of their North Korean Embassy staffers leave.
Mexico accepted a new North Korean ambassador last year following a change of government, but most other countries’ relations with North Korea remain sour.
North Korea has faced further setbacks on the diplomatic front as its former acting Ambassador to Italy Jo Song-gil and former acting Ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyun-woo defected to South Korea.
Most foreign diplomats who had been stationed in Pyongyang left the country after it closed borders in January last year due to coronavirus fears.
The US has also returned to a hard-line policy of joining hands with its allies to increase pressure on North Korea, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken blasting China during his trip to Seoul and Tokyo this week, and urging it to convince North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.
On March 3, a North Korean man named Mun Chol-myong lost his final appeal in Malaysia’s top court against extradition to the US to face money laundering charges.
Mun, 56, who had lived in Malaysia for a decade with his family, was arrested in 2019 upon an extradition request from the US.
He faces four charges of money laundering and two of conspiracy to launder money, mainly related to his work in Singapore, according to his lawyers.
Mun denied FBI claims that he was involved in sending prohibited luxury goods from Singapore to the North in violation of UN sanctions before moving to Malaysia in 2008. He also denied allegations that he laundered money through front companies and issued fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to his country.
The North’s Foreign Ministry said Mun had engaged in “legitimate external trade activities in Singapore,” claiming that it was a “fabrication … to argue that he was involved in ‘illegal money laundering.’”
The ministry said in a statement that Malaysian authorities “committed an unpardonable crime … of forcibly delivering the innocent citizen (of North Korea) to the US,” warning that the US will “pay a price.”
The statement comes after Pyongyang refused Washington’s calls for talks and Blinken criticized the North’s human rights violations and nuclear threats during his visit to Seoul.
Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry immediately refuted North Korea’s move to sever diplomatic relations. The ministry emphasized that Malaysia has tried to normalize ties with North Korea despite the 2017 assassination case of North Korean leader’s half brother Kim Jong-nam. It also accused North Korea’s latest decision of being “clearly unwarranted, disproportionate and certainly disruptive” for regional peace and stability.
North Korea and Malaysia established diplomatic ties in 1973, but their relations deteriorated after two women -- an Indonesian and a Vietnamese -- were charged with colluding with four North Koreans to murder Kim Jong-nam by smearing his face with VX nerve agent on Feb. 13, 2017. The four North Koreans fled Malaysia the day Kim died.
Malaysian prosecutors made it clear throughout the trial that they suspected North Korean involvement, although Kuala Lumpur never officially pointed its finger at Pyongyang for Kim’s death.
Malaysia scrapped visa-free entry for North Koreans, and expelled North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol after he rejected Malaysia’s investigation and insisted the victim was an ordinary citizen named Kim Chol who died of a heart attack.
In a tit-for-tat move, North Korea banned Malaysians from leaving at the time, including three diplomats and six of their family members. The nine Malaysians were allowed to fly back after Kuala Lumpur released Kim’s body, and let go of North Koreans wanted by police for questioning over Kim’s death, including an embassy official and a North Korean Air Koryo employee.
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com