KUALA LUMPUR – North Korean diplomats vacated their embassy in Malaysia and were expelled Sunday, after the two nations cut diplomatic relations in a spat over the extradition of a North Korean criminal suspect to the United States.
The North Korean flag and embassy signage were removed from the premise in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. Two buses ferried the diplomats and their families to the airport, where they were seen checking in for a flight to Shanghai.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the expulsion was in response to Pyongyang’s “unilateral and utterly irresponsible decision” on Friday to sever diplomatic ties.
“This action is a reminder that Malaysia shall never tolerate any attempt to meddle in our internal affairs and judiciary, disrespect our governance system and constantly create unnecessary tensions in defiance of the rules-based international order,” he said in a statement.
Ties between North Korea and Malaysia have been virtually frozen since the 2017 assassination of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Two days after Kuala Lumpur extradited a North Korean man to the U.S. to face money laundering charges, a furious North Korea on Friday announced it was terminating ties with Malaysia. Malaysia denounced the decision and in a tit-for-tat response, gave North Korean diplomats 48 hours to leave.
Kim Yu Song, the chargé d’affaires and councilor in Kuala Lumpur, said Malaysia had “committed an unpardonable crime." Echoing Pyongyang's earlier statement, he accused Malaysia of being subservient to the U.S. and being part of a U.S. conspiracy aimed at “isolating and suffocating" his country.
“The Malaysian authority delivered our citizen to the U.S. in the end, thus destroying the foundations of the bilateral relations based on respect of sovereignty," he said in a short statement outside the embassy, before heading to the airport.
North Korea has called the money laundering charges an “absurd fabrication and (a) sheer plot” orchestrated by the U.S. and warned Washington will “pay a due price."
Some experts say cutting ties with Malaysia was North Korea's way of showing anger with President Joe Biden's administration, without jeopardizing an eventual return to nuclear negotiations with Washington.
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.
Malaysia has defended its move to extradite Mun Chol Myong, saying it was carried out only after all legal processes have been exhausted. A top court ruled Mun can be extradited after rejecting his appeal on grounds that the U.S. charges were politically motivated.
Mun, who lived in Malaysia for a decade and was arrested in May 2019, has denied U.S. accusations that he was involved in supplying luxury goods from Singapore to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions while working in the city-state. He denied laundering funds through front companies and issuing fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to his country.
North Korea has long used Malaysia as a crucial economic hub where it handled trade, labor exports and some illicit businesses in Southeast Asia, 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 after a trial.
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. 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.