Reuters KUALA LUMPUR/SEOUL (Reuters) — North Korea barred Malaysians from leaving the country on Tuesday, sparking tit-for-tat action by Malaysia, as police investigating the murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur sought to question up to three men hiding in the North Korean Embassy.
Malaysia was outraged by the murder of the North Korean leader’s estranged half brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13 by assassins using VX nerve agent, a chemical listed by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
Police have identified eight North Koreans wanted in connection with the murder, including a senior North Korean diplomat and a state airline employee — two of the three believed to be hiding in the embassy. The only people charged so far are a Vietnamese woman and an Indonesian woman.
As the row escalated on Tuesday, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a temporary ban on Malaysians leaving in order to ensure the safety of its own diplomats and citizens in Malaysia.
“All Malaysian citizens in the DPRK will be temporarily prohibited from leaving the country until the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved,” the state-run Korea Central News Agency said, quoting a ministry official. “In this period the diplomats and citizens of Malaysia may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before.”
Malaysia reacted swiftly, condemning Pyongyang’s action as hostage-taking and responded by barring all North Koreans from leaving the country.
“This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement, adding that he has summoned an emergency meeting of the National Security Council.
Najib said he has also instructed the 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.”
Before the murder, North Korea could count Malaysia as one of its few friends outside of China. But Malaysia has since stopped visa-free travel and on Monday it expelled North Korea’s ambassador for questioning the impartiality of the murder investigation.