KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—North Korea closed its borders Tuesday to Malaysians who want to leave the country, spurring Malaysia to issue a retaliatory order and drawing hundreds of ordinary people into an increasingly bitter diplomatic battle over the killing of an exiled member of North Korea’s ruling family.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak denounced North Korea’s order as a violation of international law, calling it “an abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage.” Police have been ordered to stop North Koreans from leaving Malaysia “until we are assured of the safety and security of all Malaysians in North Korea,” Najib said in a statement.
The sudden diplomatic escalation came more than two weeks after Kim Jong Nam, the long-exiled half brother of North Korea’s ruler, was killed in a poison attack at the Kuala Lumpur airport.
“I can’t think of anything like this” happening for years, said Lalit Mansingh, a New Delhi-based scholar and longtime top Indian diplomat, said of North Korea’s directive. “This is way out of normal diplomatic practice.”
But North Korea has a long history of surprising the international community.
“It’s the North Korean way of doing things—dramatic intimidating gestures and then waiting for the other side to plead for some concessions,” said Leszek Buszynski, a national security scholar at Australian National University who has written extensively on North Korean diplomacy.
Officials in Kuala Lumpur say there are 11 Malaysians currently in North Korea: three working at the embassy, two U.N. employees and six family members. About 1,000 North Koreans are believed to be in Malaysia, until recently one of the few countries where North Koreans could travel without a visa.
Malaysia’s investigation into Kim Jong Nam’s death has infuriated North Korea, which has dismissed the inquiry as politically motivated and demanded the body be turned over to them immediately.
North Korea’s surprise order came Tuesday morning, when the official Korean Central News Agency said the country was banning Malaysians from leaving “until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of (North Korea) in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case.”
It was not clear, however, what would constitute a “fair settlement.”
North Korea said Malaysia’s diplomats and citizens “may work and live normally” during the temporary exit ban.
Malaysia is searching for seven North Korean suspects in connection with Kim’s assassination, including a North Korean diplomat. Police say three suspects are believed to be in hiding at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, a hulking concrete mansion behind a wall streaked with water stains.
National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said Malaysia would not raid the embassy, which is protected under diplomatic law, but would wait for the suspects to emerge.
“We will wait. We will wait, and if it takes five years we will wait outside. Definitely somebody will come out,” Khalid said.
Malaysian police briefly blocked the embassy gates Tuesday with a pair of police cars, but within hours embassy cars were again freely going in and out. By late afternoon there were only a pair of Malaysian patrolmen waiting in a police car outside the compound.
Malaysia has never directly accused North Korea of killing Kim, though it has said the two women who poisoned him were recruited by a team of North Koreans. Malaysia says Kim was killed with VX, a nerve agent and banned chemical weapon that causes convulsions and leaves victims unable to breathe. North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons, including VX.
In the attack, grainy surveillance video shows a woman approaching Kim from behind in the airport terminal and reaching around to wipe something on his face. The other woman, who was apparently standing in front of Kim, cannot be seen in the video.
The women, one from Vietnam and the other from Indonesia, were quickly caught and have been charged with murder. Both say they were duped into thinking they were playing a harmless prank.
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 had reportedly never met younger half brother, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.