SEOUL — Tensions between North Korea and Malaysia became even more heated Monday when Pyongyang’s envoy said Malaysia could not be trusted to carry out the investigation into last week’s killing of leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother and the Malaysian prime minister defended the investigation as “objective.”
The war of words is striking because Malaysia has been one of the few countries that North Korea could count as a friend. But it underscores the stakes for the Kim regime, which is widely accused of orchestrating the sensational assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s estranged older half brother, at Kuala Lumpur’s airport last week.
South Korea’s prime minister said Monday that his government was “certain” that Pyongyang was behind the “act of terrorism.”
In the latest dramatic developments, Kim Han Sol, the 20-something son of Kim Jong Nam, is thought to have arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Monday night. Local media reported that he was on a flight from Macau, where the family is based, to the Malaysian capital, and reporters staked out the airport for hours. But there was no sign of him, perhaps because he was whisked out a private exit to avoid the media scrum.
Malaysian authorities have been insisting on a DNA match before releasing the body, so Kim Han Sol could have arrived to provide it.
Adding to the intrigue was closed-circuit TV footage released Monday showing the attack on Kim Jong Nam. The 45-year-old North Korean is seen going to the airport’s check-in kiosk, when two women ambush him and appear to apply what authorities have said was poison. He is seen going up to airport staff and reenacting the attack. Kim Jong Nam was still able to walk, although increasingly slowly, so the staff took him to a clinic in the airport.
Photos obtained by Japanese media showed him slumped in a chair in the clinic. He died in an ambulance en route to hospital shortly after.
North Korea has become angrier by the day over the case, accusing Malaysia of colluding with South Korea to try to make it look bad and of committing “human rights abuses” in the way the autopsy was conducted and its treatment of a North Korean suspect and his family.
“We cannot trust the investigation by the Malaysian police,” Kang Chol, Pyongyang’s envoy, told reporters outside the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Monday afternoon, noting that there had been no evidence released about the cause of death even a week after the attack.
“It only increases the doubt that there could be someone else’s hand behind the investigation,” he said, echoing a previous allegation that South Korea was trying to malign North Korea, and accusing Malaysia of defaming his country.
He proposed that North Korea and Malaysia open a joint investigation into Kim Jong Nam’s death.
Kang’s statement came after he was summoned to the Malaysian foreign ministry over his criticism of Kuala Lumpur’s investigation. Meanwhile, Malaysia recalled its ambassador to Pyongyang for “consultations.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak rejected the suggestion of a joint investigation, saying that his government’s probe would be “objective” and that Malaysian police and doctors were “very professional.”
“We have no reason why we want to do something to paint North Korea in a bad light,” Najib told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “I have absolute confidence that they are objective in whatever they do.”
North Korea had strongly objected to Malaysia’s decision to conduct a postmortem on Kim Jong Nam, and then went on a public tirade when it emerged that the examination was inconclusive and that a second one would be needed. The results could be out Wednesday.
“Their attempt to mangle again his body [and] not to release [it] is the culmination of human rights abuse and shows once again how they are desperate to shift blame on us,” Kang said in a statement that he read to reporters.
With one North Korean in custody in Malaysia and at least four of his compatriots suspected of involvement, South Korea voiced increasing certainty that the North Korean regime was behind the assassination.
“It seems clear that the North Korean regime is behind this case,” Hwang Kyo-ahn, the South Korean prime minister who is now acting as president, told a meeting of the National Security Council on Monday.
The apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam was an “unacceptable, inhumane, criminal act,” he said, and Pyongyang should be punished for committing the “act of terrorism.”
His pronouncement came after Malaysia released information about four North Koreans who had been in Kuala Lumpur for several weeks but left on the day of the attack.
The man who has been arrested is 47-year-old Ri Jong Chol, who is said to have a background in chemistry and to have studied in India. A Facebook page belonging to a Ri Jong Chol who studied at Kim Il Sung University and lists his home as Pyongyang features a profile photo of a man wearing gloves in a science lab.
The other four named by Malaysia as suspects are now back in North Korea, having gone to great lengths to avoid going through China — the most direct route — to get home. They appear to have flown from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta, Indonesia, then to Dubai and on to Vladivostok, Russia, then from there to Pyongyang.
It is not known why they went to such trouble, although China had been protecting Kim Jong Nam, who had lived in quasi-exile in Beijing and the Chinese territory of Macau for about 15 years.
When pressed to explain how South Korea could be so certain of its conclusion about North Korea’s responsibility for the death — a position expressed within 24 hours of the attack becoming known — the unification minister, Hong Yong-pyo, said it was based on “North Korea’s behavior.”
“We can see from North Korea’s past activities that this points to North Korea,” Hong said at a news conference with foreign reporters in Seoul, saying that one characteristic of the Kim Jong Un regime was that it operated as “a reign of terror.”