Malaysia, North Korea to begin formal talks over return of Malaysians: minister

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia will in the coming days begin formal talks with North Korea on the return of nine Malaysians stranded in Pyongyang, the Southeast Asian nation’s foreign minister said on Saturday, after they were barred from leaving the country amid a diplomatic spat.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman speaks to the media in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 26, 2015. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

The two countries have sparred over the Feb. 13 killing in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and this week the incident sparked a diplomatic standoff as both countries slapped travel bans on each other’s citizens.

But Malaysian officials have since diffused tensions, saying ties with the reclusive state will not be severed.

Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said North Korea had indicated they were ready to start negotiations.

“They want to start talking. We do not know what their demands are - we need to figure out what we can do to get the best result,” he told reporters on Saturday.

He said many countries had offered to mediate between the two but that “no countries will act as a third party” or mediator.

He added no time or location had been set yet for the official negotiations.

Two Malaysians - staffers at the United Nations - were able to fly out of Pyongyang earlier this week using UN passports, leaving nine behind, including three children.

Malaysia has accused the nuclear-armed state of masterminding Kim Jong Nam’s murder and identified eight North Koreans, including three still in Kuala Lumpur, in connection with the killing.

North Korea has in turn criticized Malaysia’s handling of the investigation.

Kim Jong Nam, who had been living under Beijing’s protection in Macau and had been known to criticize his family’s regime, was killed using the highly toxic VX nerve agent. The chemical is classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction.

Anifah said the government is in “constant communication” with the stranded Malaysians. He added that they had been offered support from other foreign missions in Pyongyang, including the provision of supplies from outside North Korea.

Malaysia’s police chief on Friday officially confirmed the victim was Kim Jong Nam, something Pyongyang has denied.

Malaysia has so far refused to comply with North Korean demands to hand over the victim’s body to the embassy. Foreign minister Anifah said on Saturday authorities were yet to discuss with their North Korean counterparts whether they would give the body over to the North Korean government or the family.

Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Sam Holmes