North Korea is banning all Malaysian citizens from leaving the country and potentially holding them hostage, the state media reported on Tuesday. This move comes amid a heated diplomatic row over the ongoing investigation on Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, murder. It has been two weeks since the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, leader of North Korea, was killed at the Kuala Lumpur airport with a toxic nerve agent.
"All Malaysian nationals in the DPRK will be temporarily prohibited from leaving the country until the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved," the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) cited the foreign ministry and said.
According to Malaysian deputy foreign minister, at present, there are 11 Malaysians in North Korea, three of whom are embassy employees.
In response to the ban, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a media briefing that Kuala Lumpur will also ban all North Korean embassy staff and diplomats from leaving the country.
Malaysia's Minister for Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin tweeted saying the move by Pyongyang to bar Malaysians leaving the country as "tantamount to taking hostages".
"This is unacceptable. DPKR must allow free passage of Malaysians at once."
However, KCNA added that Malaysian diplomats and nationals in the North would be allowed to "conduct business and live normally" while the travel ban is in place.
Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that had unusually strong ties with the nuclear-armed nation for years. But, ever since the killing, diplomatic tensions have been escalating between North Korea and Malaysia as the countries are tussling over custody of the victim's body.
South Korea has consistently blamed North Korea for the assassination, citing what they say was a standing order from Kim Jong-Un to kill his half-brother, who lived in exile. However, Pyongyang that has never acknowledged Kim's identity has denied the charge and disputes the autopsy. It also claimed that Malaysia is in cahoots with its enemies.
Kuala Lumpur has sought several North Koreans for questioning, although the only one it arrested was released for lack of evidence. Although, North Korea is yet to confirm the dead man's identity but it has denounced the Malaysian investigation as an attempt to smear it.
The North's ambassador has been expelled by Malaysia as diplomatic tensions soared, and Pyongyang retaliated late Monday by formally ordering out his counterpart -- who had already been recalled for consultations.