North Korea responded to Malaysia’s expulsion of its ambassador and tighter restrictions on North Korean travel by announcing a travel ban of its own. In classic North Korean style, their travel ban prevents Malaysians from leaving Pyongyang, effectively taking all of them hostage.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry said these restrictions would be in effect “until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of North Korea in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case that occurred in Malaysia.”
In other words, Malaysians in Pyongyang are quite explicitly being held hostage against the safety of North Koreans in Malaysia. The wording of the statement from North Korea sounds like an attempt to intimidate Malaysia from arresting any more North Koreans in connection with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Four such individuals are believed to remain at large in Malaysia, possibly hiding in the North Korean embassy. It is possible North Korea’s move is meant to block the Malaysians from shutting down North Korea’s embassy entirely, which could expose the suspects hiding there to arrest.
“This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, quoted by the New York Times.
“I know that the family and friends of our fellow Malaysians detained in North Korea are anxiously anticipating news of their loved ones… you can rest assured that we are doing our very best to secure their safe return,” Najib said on social media. Opposition leaders are urging him to issue an even stronger condemnation of North Korean “hostage terrorism.”
The NYT also quotes Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar declaring himself prepared to wait outside the North Korean embassy for years until the suspects come out.
The Associated Press reports that Malaysia replied with its own ban on the departure of North Korean embassy staff, so now each country is holding the other’s diplomatic staff hostage. There are an estimated 1,000 North Koreans in Malaysia, while only about 11 Malaysian citizens serve at their embassy in Pyongyang.
NPR says the two countries are in a “full-blown standoff” and headed for a “complete diplomatic breakdown.” North Korea’s travel ban would appear to violate United Nations conventions on diplomacy and human rights.