Malaysia hopes to open N.Korea talks 'in next few days'

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) –


Malaysia hopes to open negotiations with North Korea in the "next few days" to secure the release of its citizens trapped in Pyongyang following a row over the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, the foreign minister said Saturday.

The killing of the half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un last month in Kuala Lumpur International Airport with VX nerve agent triggered a bitter standoff between the previously friendly Asian nations, which have expelled each other's ambassador and refused to let their citizens leave.

Three Malaysian embassy staff and six family members are stranded in Pyongyang after North Korea barred Malaysians from leaving the country on Tuesday, prompting a tit-for-tat move by Kuala Lumpur.

"Talks are set to begin... in next few days" with Pyongyang, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told a news conference.

"They want to start talking but ... before we start talking we have to establish a lot of factors first," he said, without offering further details.

Alam held the briefing after meeting with relatives of the stranded Malaysians and said he had spoken to embassy staff in Pyongyang who appeared to be safe.

"They said they are quite free to move around and this is very encouraging."

North Korea has never confirmed the identity of the dead man, but has denounced the Malaysian investigation as an attempt to smear the secretive regime, insisting that he most likely died of a heart attack.

Pyongyang has also demanded the return of his body but Malaysian authorities have refused to release it without a DNA sample from next-of-kin.

Alam said the matter would be discussed with Pyongyang when talks begin, adding, "we don't want to keep the body more than what is necessary".

South Korea has blamed Pyongyang for the assassination and Malaysian police are seeking seven North Korean suspects, four of whom left Malaysia on the day of the murder.

The Malaysian police chief has said he believes the other three are hiding in North Korea's embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Two women -- one Vietnamese and one Indonesian -- have been arrested and charged with the murder. Airport CCTV footage shows them approaching the victim and apparently smearing his face with a piece of cloth.