Malaysia soccer squad barred from traveling to North Korea

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) The Malaysian government has barred the country’s national soccer team from traveling to North Korea for an Asian Cup qualifying match on March 28 because of security concerns.

Football Association of Malaysia secretary-general Hamidin Mohamad Amin issued a statement Monday saying that Malaysia’s expulsion of North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol has “made the current situation unsafe for Malaysians to travel to North Korea for the moment.”

Hamidin said the FAM has written to the Asian Football Confederation to ask for the venue to be shifted from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to a neutral arena.

The North Korean ambassador was expelled from Malaysia over his criticism of the investigation into the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, last month at a crowded airport in Kuala Lumpur.

Ambassador Kang Chol said Malaysia was taking “extreme measures” that will do “great harm” to bilateral relations.

North Korea disputes Malaysia’s determination that the victim was killed by the nerve agent VX. Malaysia has rejected the North’s contention that he may have suffered a heart attack.

The March 28 Asian Cup qualifier in Pyongyang has been in doubt for weeks. At a news conference last week, Hamidin said he would leave it up to the Asian Football Confederation to decide whether or not to postpone the match or move it to a neutral venue.

There have been other occasions when international issues caused games in Asia to be played in a neutral country – some in recent weeks when the Asian Champions League kicked off.

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s lack of a diplomatic relationship means that for the second straight year, meetings between clubs from the two nations in the continental championship are taking place in a third country.