North Korea bans Malaysians from leaving country as dispute escalates

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North Korea has banned Malaysian citizens from leaving the country and demands a quick resolution to the escalating dispute over last month’s assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader.

The move came as Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters that several North Koreans who are wanted in connection with Kim’s assassination are believed to be hiding in the country’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur. He added that North Korean authorities are not cooperating with investigators.

“We will not raid the embassy. We will wait for them to come out. We have got all the time,” the police chief was quoted as saying by The Straits Times. Police officers cordoned off the North Korean embassy just before noon and those inside will have to be identified if they want to leave the compound.

North Korea said its decision to bar Malaysian citizens from leaving the country was directly linked to the diplomatic row over Kim’s assassination. At least 11 Malaysian citizens are known to be in North Korea, including 3 embassy employees, 6 of their relatives, and 3 workers from the United Nations.

“[North Korea] informed the Malaysian Embassy here of its decision to temporarily ban the exit of Malaysian citizens in the DPRK until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of the DPRK in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case that occurred in Malaysia,” state media said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Responding to the decision, the Malaysian government announced that it would in turn stop all North Korean citizens from leaving the country, with one minister comparing North Korea’s action to a “hostage-taking.” At least 14 North Korean diplomats are currently believed to be in Malaysia.

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms North Korea’s decision to prevent Malaysian citizens from leaving the country,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement. “This abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage, is in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.”

Najib added that he has summoned an emergency meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the crisis. “Protecting our citizens is my first priority and we will not hesitate to take all measures necessary when they are threatened,” he said.

The dispute began in February when Kim Jong Nam died at Kuala Lumpur Airport after being poisoned with the nerve agent VX. North Korea has rejected those findings and claims that Kim, who lived in exile and was critical of his family’s rule, died of a heart attack, even though North Korea has not been able to examine the body.

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