KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has expelled North Korea’s ambassador, giving him 48 hours to leave the country in a major break in diplomatic relations over the airport assassination of the half-brother of Pyongyang’s leader.
Kim Jong-Nam, 45, was poisoned February 13 with deadly nerve agent VX. North Korea has not acknowledged the dead man’s identity but has repeatedly disparaged the murder investigation, accusing Malaysia of conniving with its enemies.
“The ambassador has been declared persona non grata after Malaysia demanded but did not receive an apology for Pyongyang’s attacks on the investigation,” Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Haji Aman said.
“Malaysia will react strongly against any insults made against it or any attempt to tarnish its reputation,” he said in a statement released late Saturday.
Ambassador Kang Chol failed to present himself at the ministry when summoned and “is expected to leave Malaysia within 48 hours,” the statement added.
On Sunday morning, media besieged Pyongyang’s embassy, from where Kang is expected to depart before the expulsion deadline expires 6pm on Monday.
Arch-rival South Korea has blamed the North for the murder, citing what they say was a standing order from leader Kim Jong-Un to kill his exiled half-brother who may have been seen as a potential rival.
The expulsion is “part of the process by the Malaysian government to review its relations” with the North Korea, which before Kim’s assassination were unusually cosy, the foreign ministry said.
The diplomatic spat erupted last month when Malaysian police rejected North Korean diplomats’ demands to hand over Kim’s body.
Kang then claimed the investigation was politically motivated and said Kuala Lumpur was conspiring with “hostile forces.”
Malaysia summoned Kang for a dressing-down, with Prime Minister Najib Razak saying the ambassador’s statement was “diplomatically rude.”
Malaysia issued a February 28 deadline for an apology, but “no such apology has been made, neither has there been any indication that one is forthcoming.”
Malaysia has also recalled its envoy to Pyongyang and cancelled a rare visa-free travel deal with North Korea.
Police are seeking seven North Korean suspects in their probe but on Friday released the only North Korean arrested for lack of evidence.
After Ri Jong-Chol was deported, he claimed police offered him a comfortable life in Malaysia for a false confession, saying the investigation was “a conspiracy to impair the dignity of the Republic (North Korea).”
Two women—one Vietnamese and one Indonesian—have been charged with murdering Kim Jong-Nam, with airport CCTV footage showing them approaching the heavyset 45-year-old and apparently smearing his face with a cloth.
Police say he suffered a seizure and died less than 20 minutes later. Swabs of the dead man’s face revealed traces of VX nerve agent.