Nine Malaysians held in North Korea returned to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, early yesterday after the Malaysian government released the body of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader, to Pyongyang.
The exchange ended a bitter diplomatic battle between the two countries more than a month after Kim’s killing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Following negotiations that he described as “very sensitive,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government agreed to release the body in exchange for the return of the nine Malaysians held in Pyongyang.
There were no details on what led to the breakthrough, but North Korea appeared to win some important concessions: Custody of the body and the release of at least two suspects who had been holed up in its embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
The Malaysians — three embassy workers and six family members including four children — were flown home in a government jet and greeted by Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anifah Aman at the airport early yesterday.
Anifah said their safe return reflected “diplomacy at its best,” but declined to provide further details on the deal with North Korea.
Oh Ei Sun, an adjunct senior fellow with Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it was not a surprise that North Korea did well in the negotiations.
“North Korea has been performing despicable deeds around the world, such as kidnapping and assassinations, throughout the decades with impunity,” Oh said.
The public poisoning of Kim, which took place amid crowds of travelers in the budget terminal at the airport on Feb. 13, has prompted speculation that North Korea dispatched a hit squad to assassinate its leader’s estranged older brother. It has denied any role in the killing.
North Korea does not even acknowledge the victim is Kim Jong-nam, referring to him instead as Kim Chol, the name on the passport he was carrying when he died.
However, Pyongyang has demanded custody of the body, saying that the victim was a citizen.
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