Malaysian police officers gather before a protest organized by the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's ruling coalition, in front of the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
Malaysian police officers gather before a protest organized by the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's ruling coalition, in front of the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

North Korea announced yesterday that all Malaysian citizens, including diplomats, will not be allowed to leave the country as tensions escalate between the two nations over the last month’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

Malaysian police have reportedly identified eight North Koreans as suspects in its investigation to the killing, including one senior diplomat and a state-airline employee. The pair are believed to be hiding along with another suspect inside the North Korean embassy in the Malaysia capital.

Only two individuals, one from Vietnam, another from Indonesia, have been arrested so far over the assassination. They both have claimed to have been tricked into killing Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

CCTV footage released to the media reportedly shows the two women approaching the victim before smearing his face with a cloth. He subsequently suffered a seizure and died 20 minutes later. It is alleged that VX nerve gas, classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, was used in the assassination plot, prompting suspicion of complicity by Pyongyang.

North Korean authorities have denied the victim was Kim Jong-nam, who had fallen out of favor with his leader half-brother and spoken out publicly against his totalitarian regime. He was believed to have been living in exile for several years in Macau under Chinese protection.

File photo showing Kim Jong Nam arriving at Beijing airport in 2007. Picture: Kyodo via Reuters

In response to Pyongyang’s exit ban, Malaysia yesterday prohibited North Korean nationals from leaving its borders. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said at a press conference that while Malaysia did not want to retaliate, “when we are confronted with a country that has breached international diplomatic norms and ethics, we have no choice.”

There are 11 known Malaysians currently in North Korea, according to Malaysia’s deputy foreign minister Reezal Marican. They include three embassy staff, two United Nations (UN) workers and six family members. However, the minister added that the government is currently unsure of whether there are more nationals in the hermetic state for tourism or business purposes.

Before the assassination Malaysia and North Korean shared relatively good ties, witnessed in their opening of embassies in each other’s capitals in 2003. Bilateral annual trade is worth several million dollars and Malaysia has welcomed hundreds of North Korean students to its educational institutions.

Since Kim Jong-nam’s death, however, Malaysia ended visa-free travel for North Korean nationals and, on Saturday, ordered North Korean ambassador Kang Chol to leave the country after he reportedly failed to cooperate with the investigation. The tit-for-tat exit ban on each others nationals has brought relations to a breaking point, analysts say.

Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak claims Pyongyang has taken Malaysian citizens “hostage” after North Korean banned them from leaving the isolated country. Photo: Reuters / Hannibal Hanschke

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement yesterday that North Korea’s exit ban was an “abhorrent act” which is “holding our citizens hostage… in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.” He added that an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council will be held soon on the development.

Some commentators believe that Pyongyang’s decision to take Malaysian nationals “hostage” is part of an intended trade-off for the return of Kim Jong-nam’s body to North Korea and the prevention of a proper investigation by Malaysian officials into his death.
The diplomatic standoff also comes as analysts warn of rising instability on the Korean peninsula.

The United States and South Korea commenced joint military exercises, known as “Foal Eagle”, earlier this month. The exercises were described by North Korea’s UN ambassador, Ja Song Nam, as “inching [the Korean Peninsula] to the brink of nuclear war.”

This week North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into reported Japanese maritime territory, landing roughly 370 kilometers from the country’s coastline, or within its nautical exclusive economic zone. North Korean state media reported the ballistic tests were personally supervised by Kim Jong-un.

The UN Security Council is expected to convene later this week after the US and Japan requested an emergency meeting over North Korea’s ballistic missile launches. The US has also reportedly deployed its missile shield system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, on South Korean soil this week.

This US Department of Defense/Missile Defense Agency handout photo shows two THAAD interceptors and a Standard-Missile 3 Block IA missile launch on September 10, 2013 in the vicinity of the US. Photo: AFP / DoD / Missile Defense Agency

China criticized the move, claiming the aerial defense system could be used to spy on its territory. Beijing has been reticent on the escalating Malaysia-North Korean tensions, despite a recent warming trend with Najib’s government. At the same time, analysts say North Korea’s recent actions may be testing the patience of its long-time Chinese ally.

The danger for Malaysia is that it has become part of a much larger geopolitical struggle, one it is arguably unprepared to navigate. Malaysian police have so far balked at the prospect of raiding the North Korean embassy in order to arrest the three suspects believed to be hiding there, a move that would inevitably further stoke tensions with Pyongyang. They have so far suggested they are willing to wait out the suspects.

Malaysia should seek a resolution to condemn North Korea’s actions at the UN, said Lim Guan Eng, secretary general of the Malaysian opposition Democratic Action Party. The US and South Korea have both strongly backed the Malaysian government’s handling of the situation to date and are expected to back any motion it may raises at the UN.

“As a peace-loving nation, Malaysia is committed to maintaining friendly relations with all countries,” said premier Najib. “However, protecting our citizens is my first priority and we will not hesitate to take all measures necessary when they are threatened.”