North Korea’s ban on Malaysians from leaving the country is a rare hostage situation that has not happened before in recent decades since the Iranian Revolution, an expert said.
Hazel Smith, a professor at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, said North Korea’s holding of “completely innocent people against their will” would have its closest match to the Iran hostage crisis that happened from 1979 to 1981, where students stormed the US embassy there and people were held captive for more than a year.
“This is definitely a hostage situation and is a flagrant breaking of international law. It is quite unprecedented in peacetime. You have to go back to the Americans held hostage in Iran under Jimmy Carter’s presidency to find an analogous situation,” the director of the university’s International Institute of Korean Studies told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
“Although the individual Malaysians in the DPRK are probably not in immediate physical danger this will be a psychologically traumatic experience which will take them a long time to recover from once it is over,” she added, referring to the reclusive country by its official name as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Christoph Bluth, a professor of international relations and security at the University of Bradford in the UK, similarly noted the unusual nature of North Korea’s move, saying: “It is unheard of. I don’t know of any example except the Iranian hostage crisis which only affected US diplomats.”
“At this point, I would say there is no immediate danger to any specific person except being prevented from leaving the country. However, for the persons involved this is a very terrifying situation,” he told Malay Mail Online.
North Korea imposed Tuesday a temporary travel ban on all Malaysians there following soured ties over the February 13 murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother Kim Jong-nam here.
Malaysia later confirmed all 11 of its nationals in North Korea are safe. Two of them are UN employees there for a course related to the World Food Programme, while three are Malaysian embassy staff and the remaining six are their family members.
Academic Oh Ei Sun similarly called North Korea’s action a “highly unusual move”, saying it was “effectively a hostage situation” like how the now-deceased Iraqi president Saddam Hussein took Western hostages in 1990.
“You can never predict what they will do to the hostages,” he said, adding that Malaysians in North Korea have no choice but to obey whatever the regime orders in order to preserve their lives.
While Malaysia responded by similarly imposing a temporary ban on North Koreans from leaving the country, Oh said this was an “extraordinary measure enacted under extraordinary circumstances as you are dealing with a highly unpredictable regime and must have some bargaining chips in hand”.
When asked how long North Korea’s temporary travel ban on Malaysians might last, Oh noted that some Japanese hostages were held by North Koreans for many decades.
“Can ask neutral countries like Switzerland or neutral international organisations like International Committee of the Red Cross to mediate, to the extent they entertain this,” said the adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said he was hesitant to call North Korea’s travel ban a “hostage situation”, although it had some hallmarks of such a scenario.
“Saying so might lead to us to draw false parallels between what’s happening now and the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-1981. The current situation is bad, not quite as severe. Diplomatic relations haven’t been cut and both countries are still in control of their respective embassies,” he noted.
Citing North Korea’s statement that Malaysia’s diplomats and citizens there may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before, Shahriman said he does not foresee any personal harm to Malaysians there beyond restrictions of their movement.
Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said the government has been given an assurance that the stranded Malaysians are not in custody and can move about Pyongyang freely, with the exception that they cannot leave North Korea.