North Korea Cuts Ties with Malaysia over U.S. Extradition


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 estranged half-brother in 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 earlier this month -- a move it labelled an "unpardonable crime" carried out under "blind obedience" to US pressure.

Malaysia had been one of the nuclear-armed country'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. 

Ties plunged after the Cold War-style hit but had started to get back on track with Malaysia announcing the re-opening of its Pyongyang embassy -- but Friday's surprise move put a swift end to that. 

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. 

The move 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 nuclear-armed North and an increasingly assertive China.

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

- Turbulent ties -

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, which is banned under sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its weapons programmes.

Before the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, Malaysia and the North enjoyed particularly warm relations. 

But afterwards, a reciprocal visa-free travel arrangement for visitors was axed while North Koreans who had been working in coal mines in Sarawak state on Borneo island were sent home. 

Two young women, from Indonesia and Vietnam, who had smeared the nerve agent VX on Kim's face were arrested and put on trial but murder charges against them were dropped in 2019.

Their lawyers argued the real assassins were a group of North Koreans who had recruited and trained them but fled Malaysia soon after the murder. 

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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