BEIJING/KUALA, LUMPUR – North Korea and Malaysia said Tuesday they have temporarily prohibited each other’s nationals from leaving their countries, as their once-amicable relations further sour following the Feb. 13 murder of the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader.
Local media also reported that Malaysia’s Cabinet will discuss Friday whether to close the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, underscoring that their cozy ties of more than 40 years have become mired in hostility.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it has temporarily banned all Malaysians from departing the country until the issue of the death of one of its citizens in Kuala Lumpur last month is settled in a fair manner.
Pyongyang has not acknowledged that the man killed in an apparent attack with the VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport was Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un. The North has instead referred to him as Kim Chol, the name that appeared on a diplomatic passport he was traveling with.
The announcement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said the prohibition will be kept in place until the safety of its diplomats and citizens in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through a “fair settlement of the case.”
It said North Korea has already informed the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang of its decision.
A Malaysian Foreign Ministry official told reporters that at least 11 people, including three embassy staff, their family members and two U.N. staff, are currently staying in North Korea, while no tourists are currently in the reclusive country.
Later in the day, the Malaysian government also said it has banned North Koreans from leaving the country. Malaysian police have sealed off the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur with yellow tape.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned North Korea’s decision, calling on Pyongyang to immediately release all Malaysians.
“This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms,” he said in a statement.
“Protecting our citizens is my first priority, and we will not hesitate to take all measures necessary when they are threatened,” Najib added.
He said an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council had been called, although did not say when this would take place.
Pyongyang has urged Malaysia to settle the case “as early as possible,” while noting that, during the period, all Malaysian citizens in North Korea “may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before.”
The temporary ban was announced a day after the North Korean ambassador, Kang Chol, who was expelled from Malaysia, arrived in Beijing.
Meanwhile, a North Korean “high-level” delegation, in Malaysia since a week ago to discuss the handling of the incident, was at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuesday. Jounalists witnessed members of the delegation preparing to leave for North Korea.
Malaysia, which established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973 when the anti-Western Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in power, is one of only a handful of nations with an embassy in Pyongyang.
North Korea and Malaysia opened embassies in each other’s capitals in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and later reached an agreement on reciprocal visa-free visits. In 2009, Malaysia became the first nation to allow visa-free entry for North Korean citizens.
Kim Jong Nam, 45, who criticized North Korea’s hereditary succession of power in an interview with a Japanese newspaper, died after two women smeared the lethal VX agent on his face, Malaysian authorities said.
North Korea has rejected the finding that VX was used in the attack, requesting samples taken by investigators be sent to a global chemical weapons body for analysis.