Kuala Lumpur (AFP) - Malaysia's prime minister on Wednesday ruled out severing ties with North Korea and said his government would seek to negotiate a way out of a rapidly escalating diplomatic row over the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam.
North Korea and Malaysia Tuesday banned each other's citizens from leaving their countries, with Kuala Lumpur saying its nationals were effectively being held "hostage".
The Malaysian foreign ministry said 11 of its citizens were currently in North Korea -- three embassy staff, six family members and two who work for the UN's World Food Programme.
Responding to questions from reporters outside parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Najib Razak ruled out severing ties with North Korea.
"At the moment [diplomatic ties are] still on because it provides us with a channel," he said.
"We have to maintain ties because we have means to negotiate," he added. "We now need to examine what are the needs of the North Korean government."
In the meantime the Malaysian government would stand by its decision not to allow North Koreans to leave the country, he said.
On Tuesday Najib condemned Pyongyang's ban, calling it an "abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage...in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms".
Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur had unusually strong links for years, but ties have rapidly deteriorated in the weeks since two women, who have been charged with the murder, wiped a deadly chemical on Kim Jong-Nam's face.
An autopsy revealed that to be VX nerve agent, a substance so dangerous it is classed as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN.
Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for the assassination, and Kuala Lumpur wants to question several North Koreans, although the only one it has arrested so far was released last week for lack of evidence.
The diplomatic dispute erupted last month when police rejected North Korean diplomats' demands to hand over Kim's body.
The North has never confirmed the identity of the dead man, but has denounced the Malaysian investigation as an attempt to smear it.
Kuala Lumpur announced the expulsion of the North's ambassador over the weekend and Pyongyang retaliated in kind.
"We are a friendly to them. We didn't pick a quarrel with them but when a crime has been committed -- especially when chemical weapons have been used -- in Malaysia, we are duty bound to protect the interests of Malaysians, " Najib said.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the security of Malaysians in North Korea was a primary concern, and he believed Pyongyang would be willing to negotiate to ensure the free movement of its citizens from Malaysia.
"So far we believe they're (North Korea) going to act rationally and we believe what is important is for us to maintain our diplomatic relationship with them," he told journalists.