The showdown between erstwhile allies Malaysia and North Korea over the public murder of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flared up again Tuesday when Pyongyang announced that "all Malaysian nationals in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will be temporarily prohibited from leaving the country until the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved." North Korea rejects Malaysia's conclusion that Kim Jong Nam was killed by VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur airport.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reacted to North Korea barring Malaysians from leaving the country by instructing 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." Pyongyang is "effectively holding our citizens hostage," he said, calling it an "abhorrent act" in "total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms." Malaysia says 11 of its citizens are in North Korea, mostly connected to the embassy, while there are an estimated 1,000 North Koreans in Malaysia, largely students and workers.
Malaysia has arrested only two people for Kim's murder — the Vietnamese and Indonesian women seen rubbing the potent nerve agent on Kim's face — and it has surrounded the North Korean embassy until it can interview three North Koreans believed to be hiding inside, among the eight North Koreans Malaysian police have tied to the murder; four of the suspects left Malaysia immediately after the killing.
The two countries expelled each other's ambassadors over the weekend, after the North Korean envoy criticized Malaysia's handling of the investigation. "You'd have to go back a long way for this kind of wholesale diplomatic meltdown," Euan Graham, director of International Security at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, tells Reuters. He called it "a classic own goal of North Korea's making," triggered "by the most outrageous public murder than you can imagine, using a chemical weapon in a crowded international airport."