Malaysia’s police chief gave an assurance Friday that a probe into the murder of the half-brother of North Korea’s leader had not been compromised by the homeward return of three North Korean suspects under a diplomatic deal worked out by both countries.
The three men had arrived in Pyongyang on Friday via Beijing along with the body of Kim Jong Nam, who was poisoned to death by the VX nerve agent at a Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13, in an audacious operation that triggered a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea.
Malaysian Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar said the men, who had been hiding in the North Korean embassy for weeks, were allowed to leave because they no longer were needed for the investigation into the murder.
“No, no, on my criminal investigation, it has not been compromised. I still state that the investigation on the murder of KJN is ongoing,” Khalid told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
He said that the trio had been interviewed by investigators and, “We have recorded their statements and we are satisfied with it.”
Malaysian officials had said that the three – Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Kim Uk Il, an employee of North Korean state airline Air Koryo, and Ri Ji U (also known as James) – had been caught on a CCTV camera at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, where Kim was assassinated.
Prosecutors have charged two women – an Indonesian and a Vietnamese – with killing Kim Jong Nam, but officials in South Korea and the United States had viewed them as pawns in an operation carried out by North Korean agents.
Khalid stressed that police were still looking for four other North Koreans, whom they had identified among suspects named in Kim’s death.
Police said they think the four returned to North Korea after fleeing Malaysia on the day of Kim’s assassination.
“We need the four to complete our investigation. And I believe that if North Korea wants a transparent investigation, they should cooperate with us and hand over to us the four,” Khalid said.
Swap resolves crisis
The Malaysian government had allowed the three suspects to return and permitted Pyongyang to take custody of Kim’s body, in exchange for nine Malaysians who had been blocked from leaving North Korea for more than three weeks.
“The body of the DPRK citizen who died in Malaysia and relevant people from the DPRK have returned to the DPRK today via Beijing,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang told a daily press briefing.
“Based on international customary practices and humanitarian considerations, the Chinese side offered necessary assistance to the body’s transit through China.”
The issue of who would have custody of the body of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a flashpoint in the diplomatic row. The crisis saw both countries, which have maintained bilateral ties since 1973, expel their respective ambassadors and impose exit bans on each other’s citizens.
At the height of the crisis, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak accused North Korea of being behind the assassination.
On Thursday evening, Najib announced the crisis was over after his government had granted North Korea permission to take custody of the body. North Koreans who had been blocked from leaving Malaysia were free to go, and the nine Malaysians headed home on a flight out of Pyongyang.
Bilateral relations were intact, Najib said Friday during a visit to Chennai, India.
“[W]e hope North Korea will no longer raise such problems as this could jeopardize diplomatic relations between the two countries,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted him as saying.
At Friday’s press conference, reporters pressed Khalid about which member or members of Kim’s family had authorized, in a letter to the coroner, the body to be released, but he declined to say.
Kim Jong Nam had been living with his wife and children in exile in Macau and was estranged from his half-brother, Kim Jong Un, who reportedly had issued a standing order for his execution.
However, the police chief did not discount the possibility the North Korean leader had claimed custody of the body.
“The next-of-kin [wrote the letter]. Legally speaking, Kim Jong Un is Jong Nam’s next-of-kin,” Khalid said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.