North Korea cuts ties with Malaysia over US extradition

·3-min read
North Korea broke ties with Malaysia after one of its citizens was extradited to the United States

North Korea severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia on Friday, abruptly shutting down a once-close relationship that took a major downturn following the shock assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport four years ago.

Pyongyang's foreign ministry said it was responding to Malaysia's extradition of a North Korean citizen to the United States this week -- a move it labelled an "unpardonable crime" carried out under "blind obedience" to US pressure.

Malaysia had been one of the nuclear-armed state's few allies until the North Korean leader's relative, Kim Jong Nam, was murdered with a banned nerve agent as he waited to catch a flight from Kuala Lumpur.

Relations plunged after the Cold War-style hit but had started to get back on track, with Malaysia announcing plans to re-open its Pyongyang embassy.

That all changed on Friday.

North Korea's foreign ministry announced the "total severance of the diplomatic relations with Malaysia", according to state news agency KCNA, saying the citizen being extradited had been involved in "legitimate" trading activities in Singapore.

It came after a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to South Korea, the second leg of an Asian tour to bolster a united front against the North and an increasingly assertive China.

On Thursday, the Pyongyang accused the new US administration of adopting "lunatic theory", ruling out any engagement with Washington unless it changed course.

On March 9 a North Korean man named Mun Chol Myong lost his final appeal in Malaysia's top court against extradition to the US to face money laundering charges.

He had denied claims of leading a criminal group that violated sanctions by supplying prohibited items to the North and laundered funds through front companies, according to his lawyers.

Mun, in his 50s, faces four charges of money laundering and two of conspiracy to launder money. The allegations relate mainly to his work in Singapore.

There have been cases of businesses in Singapore sending luxury items, such as liquor and watches, to North Korea. Such imports are banned under sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its weapons programmes.

- 'Puzzling' decision -

There was a heavy police presence outside the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur Friday as hordes of journalists arrived following the announcement.

Malaysian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But Shahriman Lockman, a foreign policy expert from Kuala Lumpur-based think-tank the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said the Malaysian government would be "puzzled" by the decision to cut ties.

"Malaysian officials will probably be looking at other explanations for this behaviour, beyond the circumstances of this case," he told AFP.

"They'll probably view it as being part of North Korea's diplomatic signalling to the US, as presaging a gradual rise in tensions between Pyongyang and Washington."

Before the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, Malaysia and the North enjoyed particularly warm relations, but afterwards they expelled each others' ambassadors and axed a reciprocal visa-free travel arrangement for visitors.

South Korea accused the North of being behind the murder of Kim. Two young Southeast Asian women who had smeared the poison on his face were put on trial, although their lawyers insisted the real killers were a group of North Koreans who had recruited them.

Charges against the pair were dropped in 2019.

North Korea operated embassies in about 25 countries as of December last year, including Cuba, Iran, Germany, and its key ally China, according to Seoul.

Illicit activities are known to be rampant in North Korea's foreign missions, and Pyongyang has long been accused of using them for intelligence gathering, sanctions-busting and money laundering.

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