North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

Malaysia and North Korea: A Political Assassination, Civilian Hostages, and Violations of International Law

By: Charlotte Smith

On February 13, 2017, at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, two women approached Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of Kim Jong-Un, and smeared toxic VX nerve agent on his face.[1]  He died soon after the encounter.[2]  Events following the assassination have heightened tensions between Malaysia and North Korea leading to civilian hostages and a back and forth between countries that could be considered a break in traditional international political norms, with a potential violation of a United Nations treaty, The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages.

Kim Jong-Nam

The Malaysian Prime Minister said the assassination was a North Korean act of killing their own citizen in Malaysian territory.[3]  However, officials in Pyongyang deny any role in the killing.[4]  Meanwhile, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador has tried to shift the blame from North Korea to the United States and South Korea, publicly suggesting that the assassination “is a product of the reckless moves of the United States and South Korean authorities.”[5]  Regardless of which regime authorized the assassination, tensions between Malaysia and North Korea remain high, with each country detaining citizens of the other and eliminating free-travel visas for each other’s citizens.[6]

Specifically, Malaysian police continue to search for as many as seven North Korean citizens who they suspect played a role in the killing of Kim Jong-nam.[7] In response to Malaysia’s continued search for North Korean individuals believed to be connected with the act, North Korea instituted a block, keeping Malaysians from leaving North Korea until a fair settlement in this case has been reached.[8]  Currently, as many as eleven Malaysian nationals, including four embassy staff members, their families, and two UN employees, are being held in North Korea.[9]  While these Malaysian citizens are not being detained and may live their daily lives with some choice, they may not leave North Korea.[10]  Nevertheless, Malaysia has instituted its own travel ban on North Koreans within Malaysia’s borders, preventing any North Koreans from traveling outside the country.[11]

The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages specifically addresses the taking of civilian hostages and identifies the offence of taking hostages as detaining another person in order to compel another state to do or abstain from doing any act as condition for the release of a hostage.[12] Both Malaysia and North Korea have signed this convention and agreed to this basic definition of what may be considered the act of taking a hostage.[13] In accordance with the intent of this treaty, only the detainment of “innocent” captives will warrant a violation of this convention.[14]  Therefore, Malaysia’s detainment of North Korean citizens with potential connections to the assassination do not qualify as relevant, innocent hostages.  On the other hand, North Korea’s use of a blanket ban on Malaysians leaving the country in order to incentivize Malaysia’s release of North Korean individuals accused of participating in the assassination may violate the simple definition provided in Article 1 of this convention. Less clear, however, is Malaysia’s barring North Koreans from exiting its borders.[15]  While both Malaysia and North Korea are apparently waiting and taking cues from the other to determine next steps, the UN Convention does provide a method for resolution.[16]  Should the UN determine a violation has occurred and decide to intervene, a third party, potentially the United Nations Secretary General, could undertake the situation and order a resolution.[17]


[1] Kim John Nam Murder | Malaysia Hunting for More N. Korean Suspects, Macau Daily Times (Mar. 21, 2017), http://macaudailytimes.com.mo/kim-jong-nam-murder-malaysia-hunting-n-korean-suspects.html [https://perma.cc/CC76-XACZ]

[2] Id.

[3] Joshua Berlinger, Malaysia blames North Korea for Kim Jong Nam’s death, CNN (Mar. 8, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/08/asia/malaysia-north-korea-blame-kim-jong-nam/ [https://perma.cc/P56W-UP7N].

[4] Edith M. Lederer, North Korea blames U.S., South Korea for Kim Jong Nam death, USA Today (Mar. 14, 2017), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/03/14/north-korea-blames-us-south-korea-kim-jong-nam-death/99153934/ [https://perma.cc/N422-28YJ].

[5]Id.

[6] More suspects sought in Kim Jong Nam’s murder, Toronto Sun (Mar. 19, 2017), http://www.torontosun.com/2017/03/19/more-suspects-sought-in-kim-jong-nams-murder [https://perma.cc/3FZW-RHEL].

[7] Supra note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Supra note 3.

[10] Id.

[11] Supra note 1.

[12] International Convention against the taking of hostages. 17 December 1969. Article 1, ¶ 1 [https://perma.cc/6PK4-2APR].

[13] 1979 International Convention against the Taking of Hostages, National University of Singapore, https://cil.nus.edu.sg/1979/1979-international-convention-against-the-taking-of-hostages/ [https://perma.cc/AMN7-V7A3].

[14] Ben Saul, International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law 3, http://legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/icath/icath_e.pdf [https://perma.cc/9BFY-QNYZ].

[15] Supra note 1.

[16] Phar Kim Beng, In North Korea’s game of chicken with Malaysia over ‘hostages’, who will blink first? (Mar. 8 2017), http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2077054/north-koreas-game-chicken-malaysia-over-hostages-who-will [https://perma.cc/39J6-J26V].

[17] Id.

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