The Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) announcement Wednesday to delay the 2019 Asia Cup qualifier marked the second time it postponed the match between the two countries. The decision came six days after the head of Malaysia's football association expressed fears that players from the national team could be exposed to food poisoning "due to the possibility of sabotage," if the AFC compelled them to play the match in the North Korean capital.
The match, originally scheduled for March 28, was first postponed till June 8 amid a diplomatic row that broke out after the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was poisoned to death in a chemical weapon attack at a Kuala Lumpur area airport on Feb. 13, according to Malaysian authorities.
In its latest statement, the AFC did not specify the Malaysian concerns about food poisoning but said it was postponing the match again "because of the geo-political tension on the Korean Peninsula."
Tension has been high on the peninsula as North Korea keeps firing missile tests angering its neighbour South Korea and the United States.
"Although the AFC had proposed on May 8 that the match - which was already postponed from March 28, 2017 - ?take place in the DPR Korea capital, recent developments have forced the AFC to reconsider the decision on the grounds of safety and security," the confederation said.
The secretary-general of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) welcomed the announcement in a WhatsApp post sent to reporters.
"This is the best decision based on the current situation in Pyongyang and coincidentally this is good for the national team to have more time to make necessary preparations and to study the weaknesses of the opponent," Hamidin Mohd Amin said.
AFC said it would monitor ongoing safety and security issues, as well as a match where North Korea will host Mongolia on May 31 and age-restricted under-23 qualifying matches scheduled for July 19 to 23.
"After those matches, the AFC will make a decision of the venue for the AFC Asian Cup qualifier on Oct. 5," the statement said.
Up in the air
The six-week diplomatic row that followed the assassination of Kim Jong Nam saw Malaysia and North Korea expel their respective ambassadors and impose mutual exit bans on each other's citizens. During the dispute Malaysia's prime minister joined South Korea and the U.S. in casting blame on North Korean government agents for being behind Kim's murder, caused by an internationally banned nerve agent.
The row ended in late March when Malaysia agreed to exchange Kim's body, along with two North Koreans suspected of playing a role in his killing, for nine Malaysians who were trapped in Pyongyang for weeks because of the exit ban.
The two countries have since lifted reciprocal exit bans.
On May 8, AFC, the governing body of 46-member football associations across Asia, announced that the match would be played in the North Korean capital on June 8.
On May 11, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, who is the president of FAM and Crown Prince of Johor state, asked that the match be played at a neutral venue.
"According to the information I have received, we need to bring our own food due to the possibility of sabotage," he said.
Tunku Ismail added he was concerned that Malaysia would have to forfeit the match, face a fine of U.S. $50,000 (216,000 ringgit) and be eliminated from the qualifying stages of the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, if the team refused to play in Pyongyang. The Malayan Tigers also risked being disqualified from future AFC matches, he said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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