Updated at 6:47 p.m. ET on 2017-03-30
Kuala Lumpur agreed Thursday to resolve a six-week-long feud with Pyongyang by sending the body of the North Korean leader’s murdered half-brother to the communist state in exchange for nine Malaysians trapped there by an exit ban.
On Thursday evening (local time) the body of Kim Jong Nam was put on a flight to Beijing, and the nine Malaysians soon after boarded a plane in Pyongyang bound for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian officials said.
Two North Korean nationals, who had been identified by Malaysian police as suspects in the murder case and were thought to be hiding out in the North Korean embassy, were aboard an airliner carrying Kim’s body to China, a Malaysian government source told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday night declared an end to the bilateral crisis by announcing that his government had decided to allow Pyongyang to have custody of the body of Kim, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“[F]ollowing the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the body be returned to North Korea, the coroner has approved the release of the body,” Najib, who was traveling in India, said in a statement following a series of “very sensitive” talks between the Malaysian and North Korean governments.
Najib also announced that the nine Malaysians, who had been barred from leaving North Korea, “have now been allowed to return to Malaysia” while Kuala Lumpur “will now allow North Koreans to leave Malaysia.”
“I had a deep personal concern about this matter, and we worked intensively behind the scenes to achieve this successful outcome. Many challenges were overcome to ensure the return of our fellow Malaysians. The safety and security of our citizens will always be my first priority,” he said.
The plane carrying the nine Malaysians – three staffers at the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang and their families – touched down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at around 5 a.m. Friday (local time).
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman was on the tarmac to greet the nine as they disembarked from a Malaysian government executive jet.
“We are thankful that all nine have returned to us safe and sound,” Anifah said
Najib said Malaysia’s investigation into the murder of Kim Jong Nam would go on.
Questions about who would have custody of Kim Jong Nam’s body, which had been kept for weeks in a morgue at Kuala Lumpur Hospital, following his assassination in the Kuala Lumpur area on Feb. 13, were central to the bilateral crisis. It saw both countries expel their respective ambassadors and impose exit bans on each other’s citizens.
“The diplomatic crisis has ended,” Najib declared on his Twitter account.
In mid-March, Malaysian officials revealed that DNA from Kim Jong Nam’s son who lives in Macau was used to confirm the dead man’s identity. He was initially identified by Malaysia as North Korean diplomatic passport holder Kim Chol.
It remained unclear whether Kim Jong Nam’s wife and children, who live in Macau, had agreed to let Malaysia hand over his body to North Korea, or whether Najib, in Thursday’s statement, was in fact alluding to Kim Jong Un as “his family.”
Late Thursday, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement issued by both countries that announced an end to the diplomatic impasse.
However, as was the case with previous statements made by North Korean officials regarding the case, the statement did not name Kim Jong Nam. It only referred to him as a “DPRK national” who died in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13.
“As the DPRK has produced all necessary documentations related to the body of the deceased from the family, Malaysia agreed to facilitate the transfer of the body to the family of the deceased in DPRK,” the joint statement said.
“Both countries agreed to lift the travel ban imposed on citizens of the other country and guarantee their safety and security within their respective territory. This would allow the nine Malaysians presently in Pyongyang to return to Malaysia and the DPRK citizens in Kuala Lumpur to depart Malaysia,” it went on to say.
Details on suspects
Kim Jong Un’s hardline communist regime has been blamed for the murder of his older sibling after he was poisoned with a banned nerve agent, according to Malaysian authorities, while he prepared to board a flight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.
Two Southeast Asian women have been charged with Kim Jong Nam’s murder as co-assassins, and at least seven North Korean nationals have been identified by Malaysian police as wanted for questioning in the case.
Najib had earlier accused North Korean government agents of being behind the assassination.
Four of the North Korean suspects, who were spotted by a CCTV camera at the airport on the day of the assassination, had fled Malaysia, police said. Three other suspects included a second secretary at the North Korean embassy.
South Korea and the United States also blamed Pyongyang for the murder because Kim Jong Un reportedly had a standing order to kill his exiled half-brother.
But North Korea had stoutly denied this and slammed Malaysian investigations into the murder as an attempt to smear Pyongyang.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.