North Korea barred Malaysians from exiting its borders and Malaysia followed suit Tuesday, turning ordinary citizens into hostages in the diplomatic battle surrounding the investigation into the bizarre death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother.
The tit-for-tat directives come as relations between the two countries disintegrate over the poisoning of Kim Jong Nam in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13.
“This is way out of normal diplomatic practice,” Lalit Mansingh, a New Delhi-based scholar and longtime top Indian diplomat, said of North Korea’s decision. He could not recall anything similar in recent years, where so many everyday citizens were pulled into a diplomatic standoff.
Although there is growing speculation that North Korea orchestrated the attack, Malaysia has never directly accused Pyongyang. Still, North Korea has slammed the investigation as flawed and called into question Malaysia’s autopsy report that found VX nerve agent — a banned chemical weapon — killed Kim.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that Pyongyang was banning Malaysians from leaving the country “until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of (North Korea) in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case that occurred in Malaysia.”
Malaysia is looking for seven North Korean suspects. Three of them, including an official at the North Korean Embassy, are believed to still be in Malaysia. Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s national police chief, said the three are probably holed up inside the embassy.
“We will not raid the embassy,” Khalid said. “… We will wait. We will wait, and if it takes five years we will wait outside. Definitely somebody will come out.”
Soon after North Korea announced its travel ban, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a strong condemnation and said he was barring North Koreans from leaving.
“This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms,” Najib said in a statement.
“I have also instructed the Inspector General of Police to prevent all North Korean citizens in Malaysia from leaving the country until we are assured of the safety and security of all Malaysians in North Korea,” he said.
Malaysian officials had initially said the ban would affect only North Korean Embassy staff and officials, but later expanded it to include all North Koreans. Police briefly cordoned off access to the embassy.
About 1,000 North Koreans are believed to be working in Malaysia. Before diplomatic ties broke down, Malaysia had been one of the few places in the world where North Koreans could travel without a visa. As a result, for years it’s been a quiet destination for North Koreans looking for jobs, schools and business deals.
Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Reezal Marican told reporters at parliament that there were 11 Malaysians in North Korea: three working at the Malaysian Embassy, two United Nations workers and six family members.
North Korea said Malaysian diplomats and citizens “may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before” during the period of the temporary exit ban.
It also said that the Malaysian ambassador would be expelled, although he has already been recalled to Malaysia.
Malaysia’s finding that the nerve agent VX killed Kim boosted speculation that North Korea was behind the attack. Experts say the oily poison was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory, and North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons, including VX.
The attack was caught on grainy surveillance camera footage that showed two women going up behind Kim as he waited for a flight and wiping something across his face. According to Malaysian investigators, the substance was VX and Kim was dead within 20 minutes.
The women, one from Vietnam and the other from Indonesia, have been charged with murder. Both say they were duped into thinking they were playing a harmless prank.
North Korea has not acknowledged that the victim is Kim Jong Nam or a relative of Kim Jong Un. Instead, it refers to him as Kim Chol, the name on the diplomatic passport he was carrying when he died.
Custody of the body has become a flashpoint. Malaysia says it needs to conduct DNA tests to formally identify the body, but North Korea says it has no right to keep the body of a North Korean citizen.
Kim, who was in his mid-40s, had lived abroad for years and was estranged from his younger half brother, the North Korean ruler.