A North Korean embassy car transporting counsellor Kim Yu Song leaves the embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, after police officials posted outside the embassy allowed them to leave the compounds. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: Malaysia’s prime minister accused North Korea of “effectively holding our citizens hostage” on Tuesday, after the Kim regime banned all Malaysians in North Korea from leaving the country, the latest escalation in tensions following the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half brother.

The Malaysian government responded by saying it would not allow North Korean diplomats to leave the country, surrounding the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur with tape and armed police.

The moves underscore the sudden breakdown between two non-aligned nations that, until a month ago, enjoyed a pragmatic relationship free from ideological judgements.

North Korea’s official media said Tuesday that Malaysian citizens had been banned from leaving the country.

“North Korea’s foreign affairs department sent a notice to the Malaysian embassy in North Korea on March 7 that it is temporarily banning Malaysian citizens from leaving the country,” the report said.

Malaysian prime minister Najeeb Razzak said North Korea condemned the travel ban as an “abhorrent act” that was “in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.”

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

There are 11 Malaysians in Pyongyang: three embassy staff, six family members and two others who work for the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

“There is no threat to their lives. Let us not come to that point yet,” deputy foreign minister Reezal Merican told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

China’s CCTV 13 reported that “emergency procedures” had been initiated at the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang and that people had been burning documents and loading luggage into vehicles, but the report could not be immediately confirmed.

North Korea suggested the ban would be lifted once the investigation into the death of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged older half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was completed to its liking.

“The ban is effective until the case in Malaysia is fairly resolved and the safety of the North Korean diplomats and citizens in Malaysia is secured,” the state media report said.

Kim Jong-nam was attacked in a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport terminal last month, his face smeared with a substance that Malaysian investigators said turned out to be VX, a nerve agent and internationally banned chemical weapon. He died within 20 minutes.

Malaysia carried out an autopsy on the body against the objections of North Korean diplomats in Kuala Lumpur, who insisted that the man — referred to simply as a “North Korean citizen” — had died of a heart attack.

Malaysia has refused to release the body without DNA identification from next of kin, but no family member has come forward to provide the match and claim the body.

North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, issued a series of increasingly virulent statements against the Malaysian government, including saying it couldn’t be trusted, and was declared persona non grata on Saturday. He left Malaysia on Monday night, bound for Beijing.

North Korea responded by saying it was expelling the Malaysian ambassador to Pyongyang, but he was already in Kuala Lumpur, having been recalled soon after the attack for consultations with his government.

After North Korea announced Tuesday it was banning all Malaysians from leaving the country, Kuala Lumpur retaliated.

“We don’t mean to do this, but it needs to be done,” Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s home minister, told a hastily arranged media conference Tuesday.

“The home ministry has made a ruling, effective immediately, that not one staff member or officer of the [North Korean] embassy can leave the country,” he said according to The Star. “This will be made effective at all immigration exits nationwide.”

Photos on Twitter showed police cordoning off the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur after the announcement.

Malaysian police have implicated three North Koreans still in Malaysia as being involved in the attack on Kim Jong-nam. They include a diplomat and an employee of the North Korean state airline, Air Koryo, and all three are believed to be hiding out in the embassy.

Ordinary North Korean citizens in Malaysia — who number in the hundreds — would still be allowed to leave the country.

North Koreans had been able to travel to Malaysia visa-free — a privilege that has now been revoked — making it a popular destination for North Koreans involved in trade and business. About 300 North Koreans are also believed to be working in a mine in Sarawak.