Hostage-taking breaks international law

North Korea and Malaysia are holding each other’s citizens, a serious escalation of the diplomatic row over the assassination of Kim Jong-nam

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 1:47am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 March, 2017, 1:47am

No government has the right to hold innocent citizens from another country against their will. Yet that is what North Korea and Malaysia have chosen to do as a row over the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North’s leader, escalates. Each has barred people from the other nation from leaving, an act that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned as being akin to hostage-taking. Regardless, his response to Pyongyang’s holding of 11 diplomats and aid workers was to order the same exit ban for the estimated 1,000 North Koreans living in Malaysia.

Malaysian investigators believe eight North Koreans were involved in the murder of Kim at Kuala Lumpur international airport on February 13. A senior diplomat is among the eight suspects, some of whom are believed to be hiding in the country’s embassy. Only two arrests have been made, a woman from Vietnam and another from Indonesia, one of whom was seen on airport CCTV footage approaching Kim from behind and putting a cloth on his face. Kim died shortly after and police have determined his death was caused by the nerve agent VX, a chemical the United Nations lists as a weapon of mass destruction.

A thorough investigation is necessary given the murder tactics and the high-profile location; it is worrying for travellers as well as a security concern. Malaysia, despite being among the few countries with close diplomatic relations with North Korea, quickly determined embassy staff and at least one official of a North Korean company were among the suspects. Orders to prevent them from leaving the country were imposed and visa-free entry for North Korean citizens was cancelled. The row escalated when Malaysia refused requests from Pyongyang to hand over Kim’s body and each nation has expelled the other’s ambassador. Kim, who lived in exile in Macau, was a critic of his half-brother, Kim Jong-un. The isolated regime has a long record of carrying out overseas killings and kidnappings and the cloak-and-dagger manner of the assassination is in line with past tactics. But the North has refused to cooperate with the investigation, claiming it is politically motivated and that Malaysia is conspiring with “hostile forces”, a reference to the North’s enemy, South Korea.

Diplomats should have stepped in to deal with the impasse. Instead, international rules have been ignored; the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has been broken as has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Malaysia has signed, but North Korea has not. People with nothing to do with the row have been needlessly dragged into it. No government should take people hostage. They are innocent parties and do not deserve such punishment.