Malaysia on Friday ordered all North Korean diplomats to leave the country within 48 hours, an escalation of a diplomatic spat over Malaysia’s move to extradite a North Korean suspect to the United States on money laundering charges.
The announcement came hours after North Korea said it was terminating diplomatic ties with Malaysia because it committed a “super-large hostile act ... in subservience to the U.S. pressure.” North Korea called the money laundering charges an “absurd fabrication and (a) sheer plot” orchestrated by the United States and warned Washington will “pay a due price.”
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. Ties between North Korea and Malaysia have been virtually frozen since the slaying in 2017 of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Malaysia's Foreign Ministry denounced North Korea's move as “unfriendly and unconstructive." It said the government will order all diplomatic staff and their dependents at the North Korea Embassy to leave Malaysia within 48 hours.
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It added that Malaysia was also compelled by North Korea's decision to shut its embassy in Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein tweeted that all Malaysian diplomats in North Korea had returned after the embassy’s operations were suspended in 2017.
The ministry said Malaysia had sought to strengthen ties with North Korea “even after the deplorable assassination of Kim Jong Nam in 2017” and that Pyongyang’s decision was “clearly unwarranted, disproportionate and certainly disruptive” for regional peace and stability.
Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry website said the North Korean Embassy is led by Kim Yu Song, the chargé d’affaires and councilor, and six other staff.
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“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, labor 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 centered on Mun’s right to a fair hearing and also an injunction to stop his extradition.
A Malaysian official said Mun was extradited on Wednesday. The ministry statement said the extradition was carried out only after all legal processes have been exhausted. It said it had to reject a series of North Korea's demarches for the government to intervene in the judicial process.
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 two 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 an earlier 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.
Kim reported from Seoul. Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.