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Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak attends an event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandra Radu(reuters_tickers)
By Rozanna Latiff and Liz Lee
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak struck a softer tone with North Korea on Wednesday, a day after accusing it of treating Malaysians as "hostages" amid a diplomatic meltdown over the murder of the estranged half-brother of the North's leader.
Malaysian police have identified eight North Koreans wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of Kim Jong Nam who was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13 by assassins who Malaysian police say used a super-toxic nerve agent that killed him within 20 minutes. Police say three of them are hiding at the North Korean embassy.
In a bid to "ensure the safety" of its diplomats and citizens in Malaysia, North Korea retaliated on Tuesday by banning Malaysians from leaving the country until the case was "properly solved."
Najib initially denounced that move as an "abhorrent act" while ordering a reciprocal ban.
In Malaysia's Borneo state of Sarawak, 37 North Koreans were detained on Tuesday at a construction site for overstaying their visas, a state government source said. They were among 176 North Koreans working in Sarawak. Those who overstayed, would be given 30-day extensions, however, an immigration source said.
But faced with the priority of securing the release of the 11 Malaysians stuck in North Korea, Najib sounded more conciliatory in parliament on Wednesday, saying there were no plans to cut diplomatic ties.
NO THREAT TO SAFETY
"We are a country that's friendly to them," Najib said, after reassuring MPs that there was no threat to the safety of the three embassy staff, six family members, and two other Malaysians in North Korea.
"We didn't pick a quarrel with them but when a crime has been committed, especially when chemical weapons have been used in Malaysia, we are duty bound to protect the interest of Malaysians."
Najib declined to elaborate on what action he would take to bring back his citizens: "If there's any negotiations, we can't do it through the media."
North Korea is in danger of losing one of the few friends it has outside of China.
On Monday, Malaysia expelled North Korea's ambassador for questioning the impartiality of the murder investigation and ended visa free travel for North Koreans.
Last week, Malaysia said it would investigate North Korea front companies after a Reuters report showed that Pyongyang's spy agency was running an arms network in the country.
The UN has called for calm and urged the two countries to settle their differences through "established diplomatic practice".
VIDEO PURPORTEDLY OF SON
North Korea says the dead man is not Kim Jong Nam, and has suggested the victim died from a heart attack.
Najib said his identity is yet to be verified: "It's been hard for us to do the DNA verification as no one has come forward. Maybe they're scared to come forward."
Malaysia has said it would only release Kim's body to the next of kin, refusing demands from North Korea to hand over the body without an autopsy.
A man claiming to be Kim Jong Nam's son said he was lying low with his mother and sister in a video posted online by a group that said it helped rescue them following the murder a month ago.
The governments of Netherlands, China, the United States, and a fourth unnamed country provided emergency humanitarian assistance to protect the family, the group, called Cheollima Civil Defense, said in a statement released on Wednesday along with the video.
An official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said the man in the video is Kim Han Sol, Kim's 21-year-old son.
"I'm currently with my mother and my sister...," the man says during the 40-second video, without disclosing his location. "We hope this gets better soon."
Reuters could not independently verify the video.
Kim Han Sol is the son of Kim Jong Nam's second wife, who had been living in the Chinese territory of Macau with Kim under Beijing's protection after the family went into exile several years ago.
'EXTRACTION AND PROTECTION'
South Korean intelligence officers say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had issued standing orders for the elimination of his elder half-brother.
The statement released on the website of Cheollima Civil Defense said the organisation responded last month to an emergency request by Kim Jong Nam's family members for "extraction and protection".
U.S. officials and South Korean intelligence suspect North Korean agents were behind the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in Macau under China's protection. He had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic rule of North Korea.
The only people charged for the murder so far are a Vietnamese woman and an Indonesian woman, accused of smearing the victim's face with VX.
The police are pressing to question up to three men believed to be hiding in the North Korean embassy, but said they would not raid the building. Police have said that four other North Koreans fled Malaysia hours after the airport murder.
The only one to have been detained was released and deported on Friday due to insufficient evidence.
(For embassy maps click on http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MALAYSIA-KIM/0100402904S/northkorea-malaysia.jpg)
(For graphic on North Korea's diplomatic ties click on http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MALAYSIA/0100402D04Y/NORTHKOREA-MALAYSIA.jpg)
(For graphic on Kim Jong Nam's murder at the Kuala Lumpur airport click on http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MALAYSIA-KIM/010031Z94H5/index.html)
(Additional reporting by James Pearson in SEOUL and Joseph Sipalan in KUALA LUMPUR; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Bill Tarrant)