Seoul: Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned North Korea for barring Malaysian citizens from leaving the country, a move that escalated a diplomatic spat between the nations following the murder of dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother last month.
“This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms," Najib said in a statement on Tuesday. “Our hope is for a swift resolution. I call upon the North Korean leadership to immediately allow our citizens to leave to avoid any further escalation."
Najib said he instructed police to prevent all North Koreans from leaving Malaysia until the safety of his citizens is guaranteed. He added that Malaysia “will not hesitate to take all measures necessary" to protect them.
The travel restrictions ramp up tensions that have been growing since a North Korean citizen believed to be Kim Jong-nam was murdered in a Malaysian airport last month. Authorities in Malaysia have said the chemical weapon VX was used in the attack, and are seeking to question a North Korean diplomat taking refuge in the embassy.
North Korea announced on Tuesday that it was temporarily barring Malaysian citizens from leaving the country. Restrictions on Malaysian citizens will continue until the safety of North Korean diplomats and citizens in Malaysia is secured, the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency said on Tuesday, adding that it hopes issues will be resolved “fairly and swiftly."
Eleven Malaysians are stranded at Pyongyang’s airport, including three embassy employees and two who work for the United Nations World Food Programme, the Malay Mail Online reported, citing the foreign ministry.
South Korean government officials have speculated that Kim Jong Un was behind the killing of his half-brother, a critic of his leadership who had lived outside the country for years. Malaysia has charged two women with the murder, saying they were trained to swipe the poison on the victim’s face and knew the substance was toxic. They were accused of abetting in the murder along with four others who are still at large, charge sheets showed.
North Korea said its citizen, who was identified as Kim Chol probably died of a heart attack and the allegations that chemical materials were responsible for the death are lies. The country hasn’t responded to requests by Malaysia to question four suspects who fled to Pyongyang on the day of the killing, Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters in Penang on Tuesday.
“The Korean authorities are not cooperating with us in this investigation," Khalid said. Several North Koreans who are wanted to assist with investigations are still hiding within the embassy premises in Kuala Lumpur, he said. Authorities have said they want to question a diplomat at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, an employee at Air Koryo, and a North Korean living in Malaysia for three years.
“We don’t intend to retaliate but this is what must be done when a country that has diplomatic relations with Malaysia acts outside diplomatic norms," deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Tuesday. “We want to send a clear message—do not point fingers at Malaysia and do not belittle Malaysia’s standing as a sovereign country that has carried out investigations professionally."