KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Tuesday that the body of Kim Jong Nam, who was killed last month, has been embalmed to better preserve it, and that about 50 North Koreans whose work permits have expired will be deported.
News of the deportations was a surprise as the countries have barred each other’s citizen from leaving amid a diplomatic standoff over Kim’s death.
Malaysian authorities say the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was killed Feb. 13 after two women smeared his face with the banned VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur’s airport. North Korea — widely suspected of being behind the attack — rejects the findings.
Zahid said Kim’s body was taken out of the hospital morgue at a Kuala Lumpur hospital for the embalmment procedure and has been returned. He declined to say when it was done.
“As it is kept in the mortuary, the body might decompose, so we did this to preserve the body,” he told reporters in Parliament.
Health officials have said Kim’s relatives will be given two to three weeks to claim his body before deciding what to do with it.
North Korea has demanded the body back and objected when Malaysia conducted an autopsy. Pyongyang also has refused to acknowledge that Kim Jong Nam was the victim and has referred to him as Kim Chol, the name on the passport Kim was carrying when he was attacked in a crowded airport terminal.
Malaysian police said Friday that Kim Chol and Kim Jong Nam were the same person, but refused to say how they confirmed that.
Relations between the countries have deteriorated sharply since Kim’s death, with each expelling the other’s ambassador. Last Tuesday, North Korea blocked all Malaysians from leaving the country until a “fair settlement” of the case was reached. Malaysia then barred North Koreans from exiting its soil.
Zahid, who earlier said negotiations were ongoing, said Tuesday that about 50 North Koreans detained in eastern Sarawak state for overstaying their work permits will be sent back to Pyongyang soon. He didn’t give details nor say why they would be deported amid the exit ban.
There are nine Malaysians in North Korea — three embassy staff members and their family members. About 315 North Koreans are in Malaysia, according to Malaysian officials.
Both countries also scrapped visa-free travel for each other’s citizens.
Although Malaysia has never directly accused North Korea of being behind the attack, many speculate that Pyongyang must have orchestrated it. Experts say the VX nerve agent used to kill Kim was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory, and North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapon.
Four of the seven North Korean suspects being sought by Malaysia are believed to have left the country the day Kim was killed. Police say the other three, including a North Korean diplomat, are believed to be in the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
North Korea on Monday sought to shift the blame for Kim’s death to the United States and South Korea.
North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Kim In Ryong, said in New York that “from A to Z, this case is the product of reckless moves of the United States and South Korean authorities,” who he said are trying to tarnish the North’s image and bringing down its social system.
The ambassador said the U.S. is one of the few countries that can manufacture VX, and has also stockpiled chemical weapons in South Korea, which could have provided the chemical agent for the attack on Kim Jong Nam.
The attack was caught on surveillance video that shows two women going up to Kim and apparently smearing something on his face. He was dead within 20 minutes, authorities say. The women — one Indonesian, one Vietnamese — have been charged with murder but say they were duped into thinking they were playing a harmless prank.