KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Two Malaysian employees of the U.N.'s World Food Program who were stranded in North Korea because of a travel ban have left the country, the U.N. said Thursday. Nine other Malaysians are believed to still be stuck there after the two countries' diplomatic relations broke down over the killing of the estranged sibling of North Korea's leader.
The U.N. employees were among hundreds of ordinary citizens caught up in the escalating diplomatic battle.
The two arrived in Beijing on Thursday, said Jane Howard, the WFP coordinator for global issues. "The staff members are international civil servants and not representatives of their national government," she said.
When North Korea issued its travel ban earlier this week, Malaysia responded in kind, barring North Koreans from leaving its soil. The nine Malaysians still believed to be there are three embassy workers and their family members.
About 1,000 North Koreans are believed to be in Malaysia, until recently one of the few countries where North Koreans could travel without a visa.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government was "in the process of establishing the reasons and motives" behind North Korea's drastic measure. He reiterated that diplomatic relations will not be severed to keep the communication line open for negotiations.
Najib said he spoke on the phone to Mohamad Nur Azrin, the counselor at the Malaysian Embassy in North Korea, who told him that all Malaysians there are safe.
"I have given him my assurance that the government will do everything we can to ensure that they return home safely soon. The whole of Malaysia is praying for them," Najib said in a statement on Facebook. "The government will continue to work on reaching the best solution on this issue."
Malaysia has never directly blamed North Korea for the killing of Kim Jong Nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport Feb. 13.
In an attack caught on security camera footage, two women approached Kim as he waited for a flight and wiped something on his face. Malaysian authorities say the substance was VX nerve agent and the two attackers were recruited by a team of North Koreans. North Korea has denied any responsibility and accused Malaysia of being swayed by the North's enemies.
The women, a Vietnamese and an Indonesian, have been arrested and charged with murder. They say they were duped into thinking they were taking part in a harmless prank.
On Thursday, dozens of Indonesian workers and activists protested the murder charge against the Indonesian suspect, Siti Aisyah, outside the Malaysian embassy in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.
Men and women from a trade union and several Islamic groups called on the Indonesian government and the international community to investigate the killing of Kim Jong Nam and work to free Aisyah.
One of the speakers at the protest told the crowd it was impossible that a naive migrant worker such as Aisyah could be knowingly involved in the murder. Protesters waved green flags and held up banners such that read "Save Siti Aisyah" and "Siti Aisyah is only a victim of political conspiracy interests."
AP writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.