North Korea has banned Malaysian citizens from leaving the country, and Malaysia has responded with a similar ban in an escalation of the row over the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur.
The state news agency in North Korea cited a foreign ministry statement saying all Malaysians “will be temporarily prohibited from leaving the country until the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved”.
Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, called it an “abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage” in disregard of international law. He said he had instructed police to prevent all North Korean citizens in Malaysia from leaving until the safety of Malaysians in North Korea was assured.
A Malaysian police investigation into the murder of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport last month has named seven North Koreans as wanted by police for questioning, infuriating Pyongyang.
On Tuesday, Malaysia’s chief of police said two North Korean nationals wanted in connection with the killing of Kim Jong-nam were hiding in the country’s embassy.
An employee for North Korea’s state airline has been named as a suspect and a senior Korean diplomat has been called in for questioning. Neither have appeared.
In the past three days, both North Korea and Malaysia declared each other’s ambassadors as “persona non grata”, ordering them to leave the country.
North Korea’s ambassador, Kang Chol, had attempted to block the investigation and prevent an autopsy on Kim Jong-nam’s body. Lab test results later found Kim was killed with the nerve agent VX, a banned chemical weapon known to be produced in state laboratories.
Malaysia’s state news agency said nine Malaysians remain in North Korea – three embassy staff and six family members.
Before Malaysia reciprocated the travel ban, the country’s minister of youth and sports tweeted that the move by North Korea was “tantamount to taking hostages”.
Last month, North Korea lashed out at Malaysia, accusing it of having a “sinister purpose” and collaborating with South Korea, which has said Pyongyang agents assassinated Kim Jong-nam.
In the first report from North Korea’s KCNA news agency since the attack, the government accused Malaysia of breaking international law by conducting autopsies on a diplomatic passport holder and withholding the body.
“This proves that the Malaysian side is going to politicise the transfer of the body in utter disregard of international law and morality and thus attain a sinister purpose,” it said.
Two women – one from Vietnam and another from Indonesia – are believed by Malaysian police to be the two assailants captured on CCTV cameras grabbing Kim Jong-nam’s face. Both were arrested and have been charged with murder.
They face the death sentence if convicted but police reports suggest they did not mastermind the murder. According to Jakarta’s deputy ambassador to Malaysia, Indonesian national Siti Aisyah was paid $90 (£72) for what she believed was a prank.