The only North Korean arrested to date in connection with the assassination of the half-brother of Pyongyang leader Kim Jong Un will be released for lack of evidence and expelled from Malaysia, senior Malaysian officials said Thursday.
Ri Jong Chol will be deported for immigration violations after his 14-day remand expires Friday, two days after a pair of Southeast Asian women were charged with murder in the attack. Malaysian police are looking for at least seven other North Korean suspects.
On the day of the murder, Ri drove four North Korean men to a Kuala Lumpur-area airport, a senior Malaysian government official close to the investigation told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Two women allegedly accosted Kim Jong Nam and smeared VX nerve agent on his face as he was preparing to board a flight to Macau from Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.
Those four men are the ones listed on charge sheets released by police Wednesday as accomplices in the murder, the source said. But they left Malaysia later that day and returned to North Korea, according to police.
The Malaysian government meanwhile announced it was ending a program allowing North Korean nationals to enter the country without a visa, ratcheting up a diplomatic dispute following the fatal poisoning on Feb. 13.
Separately, the head of a high-level North Korean delegation that is in Malaysia to claim the body and discuss the investigation with local officials said the victim died of a heart attack and not chemical poisoning as alleged by the Malaysian health ministry.
A free man
The North Korean will be expelled along with his wife and two children, the senior Malaysian official told BenarNews.
“They will be sent home on the next flight to Pyongyang at a date to be confirmed once the NK embassy is informed of the deportation,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
Ri Jong Chol, who has a doctorate in chemistry, according to reports, is one of three suspects who have been arrested so far. On Wednesday, an Indonesian woman and a Vietnamese were charged with his murder.
“He was here and supposed to work at a local company but never worked even for a single day at the company,” the source told BenarNews, saying the suspect and his family would be moved to an immigration detention center before being deported.
Malaysian Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali told reporters Thursday that the North Korean in police custody would be released and deported the next day.
“He is a free man. His remand expires and there is insufficient evidence to charge him,” Apandi said, according to Agence France-Presse. “He has no proper [travel] documents so we will deport him.”
Malaysia scrubs visa program
Also on Thursday, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi cited “national security” in announcing the government’s unilateral decision to cancel a program of visa-free entry for North Korean nationals, starting March 6.
North Korea and Malaysia have had diplomatic ties since 1973, but the murder of Kim Jong Nam on Malaysian soil has shaken bilateral relations, with Kuala Lumpur already recalling its ambassador to Pyongyang over the affair.
The North Korean ambassador has twice lashed out in public against Malaysian officials for refusing to hand over Kim’s body to Pyongyang without a post-mortem.
Earlier this week, a high-level North Korean delegation arrived in Kuala Lumpur seeking custody of the body, but Malaysian officials have not yet commented about this or said whether senior government representatives had met with the delegates.
North Korea has referred to the deceased man only as Kim Chol, the name on the passport he was carrying at the time of death, and never confirmed his identity as Kim Jong Nam.
On Thursday, the head of the delegation, former North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Ri Tong Il, told reporters that the North Korean man who died on Feb. 13 had a record of heart disease and died of a heart attack.
On Feb. 21, Malaysian health officials ruled out cardiac arrest in Kim’s death.
The special envoy from Pyongyang also questioned the accuracy of Malaysia’s claim that Kim Jong Nam was killed by VX, saying that the Malaysian government should send samples of the substance found on the body for verification by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international agency in the Netherlands.
The United Nations has banned VX and listed it as a weapon of mass destruction.
“How is it possible that the two ladies who used their bare hands to contain the material and apply it to the face of the victim, and they survived,” he asked.
“And everybody knows, and should know, the toxic nature of this material,” he went on to say. “This is extremely toxic. That’s why it was categorized as a chemical weapon by the OPCW.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.