KUALA LUMPUR — The Foreign Ministry has been tasked to lead the negotiation with the North Koreans in ensuring the safety and immediate release of 11 Malaysians stranded in the hermit state.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told Malay Mail Wisma Putra’s secretary-general Datuk Ramlan Ibrahim spearheads the Malaysian team as they discuss terms with a delegation from Pyongyang in Kuala Lumpur.
Former North Korean deputy secretary-general to the United Nations Ri Tong-il arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a high powered delegation last month.
Relationship between both nations worsened following the death of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, at klia2 on Feb 13.
Police said Jong-nam died after he was exposed to VX nerve agent, an internationally-banned chemical weapon.
Following a series of scathing attacks against Malaysia, Wisma Putra declared North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol persona non grata.
North Korea then expelled Malaysian Ambassador to North Korea Mohamad Nizan Mohamad, who had been recalled earlier.
This led to North Korea barring Malaysians from leaving the country on Tuesday. Malaysia responded in similar fashion as police cordoned off the embassy in Damansara Heights and blocked diplomats from leaving the compound early on Tuesday but removed the police line tape and moved the police vehicles later in the day.
The United Nations had called for calm between Malaysia and North Korea following the tit-for-tat actions.
“We call for calm and for both parties to settle any differences through established diplomatic practice,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Malay Mail Afternoon yesterday quoted Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak as saying: “We didn’t pick a quarrel with North Korea but when a crime is committed in Malaysia especially when a chemical weapon is used, we are bound to protect our people.”
Najib said Malaysia still enjoyed bilateral ties with North Korea and this provided an opportunity to negotiate the release of the Malaysian “hostages”.
“You need to have a channel to communicate with them (North Korea) and negotiate,” he said.
“We are not shutting down our embassy (in Pyongyang). We have our ways (to negotiate) but I cannot reveal it because our priority is the safety of our citizens there.”
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi echoed similar sentiments
“The Malaysian government is now looking at the safety of our nationals in Pyongyang, North Korea, and I believe the North Koreans are also concerned about the safety of their nationals in Malaysia,” he said.
“What is important is that Malaysia maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea. I believe they (the North Koreans) will act rationally.”
The 11 Malaysians currently in North Korea comprise three officials and staff of the Malaysian Embassy, six of their family members, and two others from the World Food Programme of the United Nations.
Footballers say no to Pyongyang match
The Harimau Malaysia footballers are not keen to playing North Korea in Pyongyang for an Asian Cup qualifying match on March 28.
The Asian Football Confederation were expected to provide FA of Malaysia an answer to their request to play the match at a neutral venue.
National goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat said the team’s safety was paramount.
“It’s a right move not to go there. We need North Korea to agree playing at a neutral venue. If they don’t … then it’s up the management.”
Striker Safee Sali said the tensed relationship kept the team on the edge of their seats.
“Playing in Pyongyang will put us in great danger. We’re suffering a diplomatic meltdown and it’s only right if we played them elsewhere,” he said.