Malaysia says only 315 North Koreans left in the country

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's deputy prime minister said Sunday that 315 North Koreans are in the country and barred from leaving amid a diplomatic dispute over the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half brother.

The figure is lower than an estimate previously given by a government official, who had told The Associated Press that some 1,000 North Koreans were believed to be in Malaysia.

Malaysia says Kim Jong Nam died after two women smeared his face with the banned VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur's airport on Feb. 13, but North Korea — which is widely suspected to be behind the attack — rejects the findings.

Relations have steadily deteriorated, with each country expelling the other's ambassador. On 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.

Both countries have also scrapped visa-free travel for each other's citizens.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told local media on Sunday that 2,453 North Koreans came to Malaysia from 2014 to 2017, but that the latest record showed only 315 remained.

Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said Saturday that the government hopes to begin formal talks with North Korea in the "next few days" on the release of the nine Malaysians who are in Pyongyang, comprising three embassy workers and their family members.

Anifah also said the return of Kim's body would be part of the talks' agenda.

North Korea has demanded the body back from Day One and objected to Malaysia's 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.

On Friday, Malaysian police confirmed that Kim Chol and Kim Jong Nam was the same person, but refused to say how they identified Kim.

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 weapons.

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 suspects, including a North Korean diplomat, are believed to be in hiding at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

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. Two women — one Indonesian, one Vietnamese — have been charged with murder but say they were duped into thinking they were playing a harmless prank.

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