North Korea Cuts Diplomatic Ties with Malaysia Over U.S. Extradition

SEOUL — North Korea on Friday severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia after that country’s highest court agreed to extradite a North Korean man accused of money laundering to the United States, a major coup in Washington’s efforts to choke Pyongyang’s illicit trade.

In a ruling last week, Malaysia’s federal court approved the extradition of a North Korean citizen, Mun Chol-myong, rejecting his argument that the case against him was politically motivated and that he was caught in the cross hairs of diplomatic enmity between North Korea and Washington.

Washington has sought to bring Mr. Mun to the United States to face criminal charges that he laundered money through front companies and violated international sanctions by helping to ship prohibited luxury goods from Singapore to North Korea on behalf of the regime in Pyongyang. Mr. Mun was arrested in 2019 in Malaysia, where he had moved from Singapore in 2008.

Mr. Mun was the first North Korean extradited to the United States to face a criminal trial. His extradition is part of Washington’s efforts to crack down on what it has described as widespread sanctions-evading activities by North Korean businessmen and diplomats. Over the years, the United Nations Security Council has imposed a series of increasingly stringent sanctions on North Korea, seeking to strangle the country’s access to foreign currency, which it has used to help finance its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs.

On Friday, North Korea identified the United States as “the backstage manipulator and main culprit” behind Mr. Mun’s extradition, warning that Washington will have to “pay a due price.” It did not elaborate, but its announcement came a day after North Korea said it would not respond to any attempt by the new Biden administration to establish a channel of communication that could be used to negotiate an end to Pyongyang’s growing nuclear weapons program.

Negotiations fell apart after meetings between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and former President Donald J. Trump ended abruptly in 2019.

“It is a nefarious act and unpardonably heavy crime,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency on Friday, accusing Malaysia of offering Mr. Mun “as a sacrifice of the U.S. hostile policy.” The “total severance of the diplomatic relations with Malaysia” would go into effect immediately.

Relations between North Korea and Malaysia were already frosty after Mr. Kim’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated at a Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Two women hired by agents from Pyongyang smeared his face with the internationally banned VX nerve agent. North Korea denied involvement.

Credit…Toshifumi Kitamura/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After the incident, the two countries expelled ambassadors from their capitals.

North Korea’s severance of ties with Malaysia will deepen its diplomatic isolation. After the North conducted its sixth and last nuclear test in 2017, in defiance of United Nations resolutions, several countries, including Mexico, Spain and Kuwait, expelled North Korean ambassadors.

North Korean diplomats have also deserted their overseas postings in recent years.

Thae Yong-ho, a minister in the North Korean Embassy in London, defected to Seoul in 2016 with his wife and two sons. Jo Song-gil, a senior North Korean diplomat who disappeared from Italy in late 2018, also ended up in Seoul, according to South Korean lawmakers briefed on the matter. Ryu Kyeon-woo, a senior North Korean diplomat who fled his posting in Kuwait in 2019, has turned up in South Korea, too.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III met with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul on Thursday. Afterward, the two allies said they would coordinate their approaches toward North Korea as the Biden administration finalizes its policy review in the next few weeks. Washington said it has tried to establish a diplomatic channel since last month, but that North Korea has not responded.

Choe Son-hui, first vice foreign minister of North Korea, said on Thursday that North Korea felt no need to respond to “the U.S. delaying-time trick,” and that dialogue would only be possible after the United States ended its “hostile policy.”

During his hearing in Malaysia, Mr. Mun, who is in his 50s, denied money laundering or issuing fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to his home country. His lawyer called him “a pawn caught in the rivalry between the U.S. and North Korea.”

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