What can Malaysia do to get its citizens back from North Korea?

Story highlights

  • North Korea and Malaysia have banned each other's nationals from leaving each country
  • Two Malaysians left North Korea Thursday, but nine remain

(CNN)Four Malaysian diplomats and their family members are stuck in North Korea, and there's not much their government can do to get them out.

All nine of them are pawns in the diplomatic fight that's followed the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half-brother, who was killed in a Malaysian airport in February.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak accused Pyongyang of holding Malaysia's citizens "hostage" and retaliated by issuing a similar ban for North Koreans in Malaysia.
    Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters Tuesday discussions were underway with Pyongyang for the safe return of their citizens.
    But is there anything else that can be done?
    "Right now there are no good options," said Ming Wan, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia. "They (the Malaysians) are stuck."
    Whatever path he chooses, Malaysia's Prime Minister finds himself in a situation no other Malaysian leader has ever faced.
    "There has never been a case of Malaysian diplomats being trapped in a tit-for-tat with another country," said Yang Razali, a Malaysian politics expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
    Fortunately for Najib, the trapped Malaysians appear to be safe.
    They are free to carry on with their lives, Najib said Wednesday.
    But they're not free to leave.
    Here are three options the Malaysians might consider, going from least plausible to most likely.
    Police personnel keep watch behind a police line drawn across the entrance to the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur on March 7, 2017.

    Option 1: 'Argo' it

    With foreign diplomats trapped in a hostile country, the situation has some parallels to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.
    But an operation like the one depicted in the movie "Argo" likely wouldn't work, says CNN national security analyst Steve Hall. The film tells the real-life story of a CIA agent who staged a fake movie to smuggle Americans out of Iran.
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    The Malaysians would have to try to sneak inside what is essentially a police state that's closed off to the rest of the world.
    "Now that it's become so public and everybody knows what's going on, I really think the clandestine, covert way to smuggle people out -- and especially that many on both sides -- I don't know that it's doable," said Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations.
    "I don't know that any intelligence professional could actually recommend it as a reasonable way to go forward."
    The North Koreans probably have a better shot at getting their folks, Hall says -- they're much less predictable than the Malaysians.
    With Pyongyang, "you can't really rule anything out," said Hall. "It's just so unpredictable, it's hard to know what the North Koreans are going to do."

    Option 2: Give in

    Malaysia could accede Pyongyang's demand by publicly guaranteeing the safety of North Koreans in Malaysia and hope North Korea allows its citizens to leave.
    But that's not likely.
    Pyongyang barred the Malaysians in North Korea from leaving unless Kuala Lumpur fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case involving Kim's death.
    "We have not taken any negative action against North Korea. What we are facing now is the result of their action in assassinating their own citizen in Malaysia, on Malaysian soil, using a strictly banned chemical weapon," Najib said Wednesday, the first time Malaysia had publicly blamed North Korea for killing Kim Jong Nam, an allegation Pyongyang denies.
    That doesn't sound like a man willing to give up.
    But there may be domestic politics at play here.
    With a general election looming in Malaysia -- the Prime Minister must call one before August 2018 -- Najib can't afford to look weak, Razali told CNN in an email.
    He already has two Malaysians on their way back. The pair, who worked for the United Nations' World Food Programme, were able to leave Pyongyang Thursday, according to a WFP spokeswoman.
    It's not known how many North Koreans are in Malaysia.

    Option 3: Compromise

    The two countries could reach an agreement.
    Despite the depiction of North Korea as a "hermit Kingdom," it does have relationships in Asia.
    "We like to imagine North Korea in the West as a hermetically sealed country, but throughout Asia they have far more flexibility and freedom of operation than you'd like to imagine," says Alexander Neill, a senior fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
    Najib says he's willing to negotiate. Malaysia will not sever diplomatic ties with North Korea to keep a line of communication open, he said.
    But Malaysian officials are not sure what exactly North Korea is now demanding, according to Najib.
    Early in the investigation, Pyongyang demanded Kim's body back. It's still in Malaysian custody, and police said they won't release it until someone provides a DNA sample.
    By keeping the Malaysians from leaving, North Korea has strengthened its hand.
    While there are also North Koreans being barred from leaving Malaysia, Neill says Pyongyang does not have the same approach to human rights as most of the rest of the world does.
    "They are known to have an entirely different approach to the sanctity of human life and human rights due to the nature of the regime. And it is a brutal regime," Neill told CNN.
    North Korea is accused of carrying out hundreds of extrajudicial killings, operating gulags that house more than 100,000 people and abducting people across Asia.
    But there are a few people North Korea cares about.
    Three of its nationals are believed to be holed up in the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. They're wanted for questioning in connection with Kim's murder, and may have access to sensitive or compromising information that Pyongyang doesn't want to get out.
    Releasing them might secure the release of Malaysia's own citizens, but police have made it clear that they're not going to let the North Koreans within the embassy leave easily.
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    International pressure is an option, but a difficult one. The litany of sanctions levied against North Korea to curtail its nuclear program don't appear to be working.
    "This is yet another indication that the North Korean government is acting in a way that should be a concern for the international community," said Wan, the professor at George Mason University.
    China, Pyongyang's most important partner, could help push the country to negotiate. But Beijing doesn't wield as much influence over Kim Jong Un as it did over his father and grandfather, experts said.
    "I don't see anybody being able to pressure them," said Wan. "I think we're going to have to watch this for a while."