Rising tension spurs Malaysia to ban travel to North Korea

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia on Thursday banned citizens from traveling to North Korea, scotching yet again its soccer team’s participation in an Asian Cup qualifying match, as tension rises on the Korean peninsula over missile and nuclear development by Pyongyang.

Malaysia is one of the handful of countries that still has friendly diplomatic ties with North Korea, but relations have been strained since the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half brother at the airport in the Malaysian capital this year.

The travel ban will be reviewed once the situation has returned to normal, the Malaysian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ban also covers the Malaysian soccer team’s trip to Pyongyang for an Oct 5 match, deputy foreign minister Rizal Merican Naina Merican said.

“The travel ban covers all Malaysians, and as Malaysians, the Malaysian national football team is included too,” Reezal told Reuters.

The news led to the match being postponed for a third time, with the Asian Football Confederation saying in a brief statement the situation would be “referred to the appropriate committees to decide on the future status of this match”.

The regional body said it decided to postpone the match after the Football Association of Malaysia told it of the travel ban.

The match had been postponed to June 8 from its original date of March 28, but both dates were scrapped because of Malaysia’s fears for its players’ safety.

Last week, North Korea granted the president of the regional body, Malaysian royal Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, access to its airspace “anytime” he wants, as Pyongyang prepared to host the Asian Cup tie.

Reporting by Praveen Menon and Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez