KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak struck a softer tone with North Korea on Wednesday, a day after accusing it of assassinating the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un and treating Malaysians as "hostages."
Malaysian police have identified eight North Koreans wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, three of them hiding in 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 denounced that move as an "abhorrent act" and ordered a reciprocal ban. He also for the first time directly accused North Korea of murdering Kim Jong Nam, who Malaysian police say died from super-toxic VX nerve agent smeared on his face by two women.
"What we are facing now is the result of their action in assassinating their own citizen in Malaysia, on Malaysian soil, using a strictly banned chemical weapon," Najib told state media agency Bernama on Tuesday.
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.
"We are a country that's friendly to them," Najib said, after reassuring MPs the three embassy staff, six family members, and two other Malaysians in North Korea were safe.
Najib declined to elaborate on the next steps: "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.
North Korea says the dead man is not Kim Jong Nam, and has suggested he had a heart attack.
Najib said the body has to be formally identified, although the deputy prime minister and senior police officials have previously confirmed that it is Kim Jong Nam.
"It's been hard for us to do the DNA verification as no one has come forward,' Najib said. "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 it over 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 airport murder.
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.
South Korean intelligence officers say 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 for "extraction and protection".
U.S. officials and South Korean intelligence suspect North Korean agents were behind the assassination of Kim Jong Nam. He had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic rule of North Korea.
The only people charged 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 murder.
The only one to have been detained was released and deported on Friday due to insufficient evidence.
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