KUALA LUMPUR - Rapid-fire moves by Malaysia and North Korea to hold each other's citizens hostage on Tuesday substantially escalated diplomatic tensions that have been simmering since the estranged half brother of North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un was killed in Kuala Lumpur three weeks ago.
Both nations banned each other's citizens visiting or resident in their countries from leaving, an unusual and swift deterioration in relations that put both at risk of violating international law and increased the likelihood of further isolating North Korea by upending a rare friendly relationship with a foreign government.
Experts in international relations said the sweeping, tit-for-tat bans were likely the first of their kind since World War II. They were rooted in the slaying of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur's international airport on Feb. 13, which Malaysia has blamed on a North Korean spy operation using VX nerve agent, a deadly chemical. North Korea has accused Malaysia of a biased and bungled investigation.
"North Korea is really shooting itself in the foot," said Jeffrey Robertson, a professor who specializes in South Korean diplomacy at Yonsei University in Seoul. North Korea's actions will give fresh momentum to South Korean attempts to persuade other states-or even the United Nations-to sever ties with Pyongyang, he said.
North Korea threw down another challenge at the international community Monday by launching four ballistic missiles that landed in Japanese waters. It also ordered the expulsion of Malaysia's ambassador, who was at home for consultations, after the Southeast Asian country ordered Pyongyang's ambassador to leave following disparaging remarks.
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