North Korea's move to hold hostage Malaysia's diplomatic staff and their families in Pyongyang marks a new low in the recent history of the errant state's recklessness. Although two Malaysian workers with the United Nations have since been released, the others cannot leave. Pyongyang sought to explain the outrage as a measure to ensure the safety and security of its own diplomats and citizens in Malaysia, some 37 of whom have been picked up by the authorities in Sarawak for overstaying their visas. In addition, Malaysian police have identified eight North Koreans they need to question over the assassination of Mr Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of the North Korean ruler. It is believed that three of them are hiding in the North Korean Embassy, giving them a measure of protection since diplomatic premises generally are treated as sovereign territory.
Under the circumstances, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak could retaliate against a country that had violated international law. He ordered detentions and, for the first time, directly accused Pyongyang of murder. Malaysia has also stuck to its position that it would release Mr Kim's body only to the next of kin, refusing demands from the Koreans to hand it over without an autopsy. At the same time, Datuk Seri Najib has indicated that he will not sever diplomatic relations. This is firmness combined with notable restraint.
Although it is tempting to compare the current developments with other hostage situations, particularly the America-Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, this one has different dimensions. In this case, the actions of a rogue state border on insanity. First, it sent its agents abroad to eliminate an unarmed man in a public place with a nerve gas classified as a weapon of mass destruction. Then it blames the affected nation for not bending on the investigation.
Combined with the recent ballistic missile tests in Japan's direction that was clearly meant to test the strategic restraint of the US-led alliance, the row with Malaysia creates nagging fears that the Korean peninsula is steadily moving towards crisis point. Mr Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister, was correct to warn this week that the US and North Korea are risking a "head-on collision". The US Thaad missile defence system swiftly being installed in South Korea is not for show.
Alongside the conspiracy theories that abound, there is evidence which points to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as the one who ordered the killing. Thus, the immediate responsibility to push the situation back from the brink, including immediate release of hostages, lies with him. There is also much Beijing can, and must, do to rein in its nettlesome ally. It is bad enough that his penchant to constantly test the boundaries of international law is making all Koreans suffer. Now, it is also affecting other innocent people.