Malaysia – A diplomatic row is erupting over the body of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s half brother, with Malaysia insisting on DNA identification before handing over the corpse, and North Korea threatening to sue.
The sensational assassination of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother – perhaps ordered by the North Korean leader himself – grew more dramatic Friday when authorities began a verbal tug-of-war over the body.
North Korea will “categorically reject” the results of the autopsy, which was performed over its objections and with its officials excluded, said Kang Chol, the North Korean ambassador here. He called for the body, whose identity he did not mention, to be released immediately.
Because Kim Jong Nam was traveling on a diplomatic passport – actually, he had four of them – he was under North Korea’s consular protection, Kang said in a late-night statement read to reporters waiting outside the hospital morgue where Kim Jong Nam’s body lies.
Using language usually reserved for enemies rather than relatively friendly Malaysia, Kang said that the Malaysian government was acting on the orders of South Korea to “conceal something.”
North Korea would “respond strongly to the moves of the hostile forces toward us with their intent to besmirch the image of our republic, by politicizing this incident,” and would sue Malaysia in an international court,” he said.
North Korean diplomats in Kuala Lumpur tried to stop the autopsy on Kim Jong Nam, who was killed in an apparent poisoning attack by two women in a busy terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday morning.
But the autopsy was completed Thursday night, although the results have not been released.
The autopsy was completed Thursday night, but officials said late Friday they would conduct a second autopsy because the first was inconclusive. Earlier Friday, Malaysian police said that the body would not be handed over to the North Korean Embassy until a family member could supply a matching DNA sample.
Such a sample most likely would come from one of Kim Jong Nam’s children – he is thought to have six. But so far, no family member or next of kin has come forward to identify or claim the body, said Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s inspector general of police.
North Korea’s ruling Kim family is a highly secretive dynasty. The totalitarian state tightly controls information about the family, which has kept a grip on the country for three generations: from Kim Il Sung, the founding president, through Kim Jong Il, the father of both Kim Jong Nam and the current leader, Kim Jong Un, who is 33.
Ordinary North Koreans, starved of outside information, do not even know about the existence of Kim Jong Nam, the love child of a secret relationship between Kim Jong Il and his actress consort. So they have certainly not been told of his death, which many analysts and officials in the region have blamed on Kim Jong Un and his quest to eliminate potential rivals.
Because the country is so reclusive, intelligence on North Korea is minimal, and the North Korean regime is likely to balk at the prospect of Malaysia – and potentially other intelligence services – having DNA information from the ruling family.
But Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters Thursday that Malaysia would release the body only after the official procedures are followed.
“After all the police and medical procedures are completed, we may release the body to the next of kin through the embassy,” he said.
The sharp tone underscores the shock in Kuala Lumpur that the killing happened on its soil.
Malaysia is one of the very few countries that does not require a visa for North Koreans, so this is a popular destination for them. There is a significant amount of trade between North Korea and Malaysia, and about 300 North Korean miners work in Sarawak.
Kuala Lumpur has also been the site for several “track two” meetings between North Koreans and former American officials because it is a neutral place that doesn’t require a lot of paperwork for the North Koreans.
Kim, who had lived outside North Korea for some 15 years, was at Kuala Lumpur airport Monday morning to catch a flight to Macau, where he has a home and family. But two women ambushed him, spraying liquid on his face, at the check-in kiosks. He sought help and was put in an ambulance, but died on the way to a hospital.
Two women – one Vietnamese, the other Indonesian – have been arrested on suspicion of carrying out the attack, while the latter’s Malaysian boyfriend, thought to be driving the getaway taxi, has been arrested to “assist” with the investigation. On Saturday, Malaysian police said they had arrested a fourth suspect, a North Korean man.
CCTV footage suggested that the women, along with four men believed to be the masterminds of the attack, cased the airport the day before the attack, laughing “playfully” and even spraying liquid on each other in a joking way, according to local media reports.
The Vietnamese woman, identified as 29-year-old Doan Thi Huong, reportedly told police that she was tricked into taking part in the attack, which she said she thought was a prank.
Indonesian newspapers offered a similar explanation for the other woman, 25-year-old Siti Aishah. One reported that she was approached by a mysterious man at a Kuala Lumpur nightclub and offered $100 to be involved in a “prank” that was rehearsed in the airport.
“Such an action was done three or four times and they were given a few dollars for it, and with the last target, Kim Jong Nam, allegedly there were dangerous materials in the sprayer,” Indonesia’s national police chief, Tito Karnavian, told reporters in Jakarta. “She was not aware that it was an assassination attempt by alleged foreign agents.”
If North Korea was behind the killing, it was surprisingly amateurish for the regime, which has a history of using elite agents in such attacks. But the three suspects were quickly apprehended, with Huong, apparently abandoned by the others, arrested when she returned to the same airport terminal to take a flight to Vietnam.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield