North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Un. image courtesy : defbuzz

Pyongyang is banning all Malaysian citizens from leaving North Korea, state media KCNA said on Tuesday, potentially holding them hostage amid an increasingly heated diplomatic row over the killing of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur.

“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 said, citing the foreign ministry.

Malaysia expelled the North’s ambassador as diplomatic tensions soared, and Pyongyang retaliated on Monday by formally ordering out his counterpart, who had already been recalled for consultations.

Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for the assassination, and Kuala Lumpur has sought several North Koreans for questioning, although the only one it arrested was released for lack of evidence.

According to KCNA, Pyongyang’s foreign ministry expressed hopes that the Malaysian government would solve the issue in a “fair and timely manner based on goodwill”.

Malaysian diplomats and nationals in the North would be allowed to “conduct business and live normally” while the travel ban is in place, it added.

Pyongyang’s extraordinary move, which Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said meant it was “effectively holding our citizens hostage” came as North Korea faced growing international condemnation for a volley of missiles it fired into the Sea of Japan.

Najib condemned the ban, and said he was ordering a similar ban on the movement of “all North Korean citizens in Malaysia”. Analysts said they could number around 1,000 people.