Two Malaysian UN staff leave North Korea after exit ban
The UN’s World Food Programme said two of its Malaysian staff left North Korea on Thursday after Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang banned each other’s citizens from leaving their countries in a row over the murder of Kim Jong-Nam.
“WFP confirms that two WFP staff of Malaysian nationality have left DPR Korea and arrived in Beijing today,” the UN agency said in a statement.
“The staff members are international civil servants and not representatives of their national government. They work on WFP’s programmes in DPR Korea,” it added.
North Korea and Malaysia on Tuesday banned each other’s citizens from leaving their countries, with Kuala Lumpur saying its nationals were effectively being held “hostage”.
Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur had unusually strong links for years, but ties have rapidly deteriorated in the weeks since two women, who have been charged with murder, wiped a deadly chemical on Kim’s face.
In a separate statement, Najib again ruled out severing ties with North Korea, with whom he said Kuala Lumpur must negotiate to secure its citizens’ release, but reaffirmed that Malaysia would not allow North Koreans to leave the country.
“We will not relent from our firm approach,” he said.
“I pledge that the government will do everything possible to ensure that our citizens continue to be safe and will be able to return to Malaysia,” he added.
A senior government official told AFP that Malaysia was not responsible for securing the release of the two UN staff.
“They carry UN laissez-passer documents,” he said.
In another Facebook post Najib said that he had just spoken to Malaysia’s counsellor in Pyongyang.
“I would like to update that he, his family along with all of the other Malaysians in North Korea are safe,” he said.
The Malaysian foreign ministry said 11 of its citizens were currently in North Korea – three embassy staff, six family members and two who work for the UN’s World Food Programme.
In a statement posted in both Malay and English, Najib said on Facebook: “Two of our citizens under the UN World Food programme were allowed to leave Pyongyang. Stella Lim and Nyanaprakash Muniandy have both safely arrived in Beijing.”
In a separate move, the Malaysian government has decided to review trade with North Korea at its Cabinet meeting on Friday, according to local media.
The Southeast Asian country is expected to consider whether to impose an embargo on Pyongyang.
Malaysia has continued trade relations with North Korea, to where it exports natural rubber and palm oil, and from where it imports inorganic chemicals and rare earths, analysts say.
Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for Kim’s assassination, and Kuala Lumpur wants to question several North Koreans over the murder.
An autopsy revealed that VX nerve agent, a substance so dangerous it is classed as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN, was used to kill Kim.
Police are seeking seven North Korean suspects in their probe, four of whom left Malaysia on the day of the murder.
The police chief says he believes the other three are hiding in North Korea’s embassy.
Additional reporting by Kyodo