North Korea’s diplomats in Malaysia shuttered their embassy and flew out of the country Sunday, after Pyongyang severed diplomatic ties over the extradition of a citizen to the United States.
Pyongyang announced the shock move Friday, labeling Malaysia’s extradition of a North Korean man an “unpardonable crime” carried out under “blind obedience” to American pressure.
The Southeast Asian country had been one of Pyongyang’s few allies but ties were already strained following the 2017 assassination of leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother at Kuala Lumpur airport.
The final blow proved to be a court ruling this month that Mun Chol Myong could be extradited to the United States to face trial for allegedly exporting prohibited items to North Korea in violation of sanctions.
After Pyongyang cut ties, Malaysia gave North Korean diplomats 48 hours to leave the country.
On Sunday, the North Korean flag and a plaque were taken down from the country’s embassy – a large house in an upmarket area of Kuala Lumpur – and the gates were chained up.
Before departing, North Korean charge d’affaires, Kim Yu Song, accused Malaysia of siding with Washington in a “conspiracy” against Pyongyang, and committing a “large hostile act.”
Malaysia had aligned its policies with those of the United States, “which seeks to deprive our state of its sovereignty, peaceful existence and development,” Kim, North Korea’s most senior diplomat in Malaysia, told a large media pack.
A group of North Koreans and their family members then departed on a bus.
They arrived later at Kuala Lumpur airport, loaded stacks of luggage onto trolleys and went to check in at the counters used by regular passengers.
Kim confirmed to AFP the group, around 30-strong, was heading first to Shanghai.
Their flight for the city departed in the afternoon, although it was not clear how or when they would travel on to North Korea, whose borders are closed to keep Covid-19 at bay.
Malaysia had expelled the diplomats “in response to the DPRK’s unilateral and utterly irresponsible decision to sever diplomatic ties,” Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein tweeted, using the official name of North Korea.
“This action is a reminder that Malaysia shall never tolerate any attempt to meddle in our internal affairs and judiciary, disrespect our governance system, and constantly create unnecessary tensions in defiance of the rules-based international order.”
Pyongyang’s decision to cut ties came after a visit last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin to South Korea, part of an Asian tour to rally support against North Korea and China.
Malaysia denounced Pyongyang’s move, and announced it would close its mission in North Korea, whose operations had already been suspended since the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother.
North Korea operated embassies in about 25 countries as of December last year, according to Seoul.
Illicit activities are known to be rampant in these foreign missions, and Pyongyang has long been accused of using them for intelligence gathering, sanctions-busting and money laundering.