Asia Pacific

Deported North Korean says Malaysia threatened to kill his family if he didn't confess to killing Kim

AP, Reuters

A North Korean chemist accused Malaysian police of threatening to harm his family unless he confessed to the killing of the half brother of North Korea’s leader, calling it a plot to tarnish his country’s honor.

Ri Jong Chol spoke to reporters in Beijing shortly after he was released and deported by Malaysian authorities, who said there is no evidence to link him to Kim Jong Nam’s killing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13.

Police never said what they believed Ri’s role was in the attack.

Ri accused police of presenting him with “fake evidence” and threatening to kill his family, who were staying with him in Kuala Lumpur.

His arrival at Beijing’s international airport early Saturday was greeted by a swarm of South Korean and Japanese reporters, but Ri was whisked away from the chaotic scene by Chinese police before he was able to make any statement.

Outside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, Ri told reporters that he had been presented with false evidence in Malaysia, and police showed him pictures of his family in detention.

“I realized that this is a conspiracy, plot, to try to damage the status and honor of the republic,” Ri said.

Ri said he was not at the airport on the day of the killing and knew nothing about the accusation that his car was used in the case.

Ri was the only North Korean detained in the killing.

Ri, who had been held since Feb. 17, was deported because he didn’t have valid travel documents, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said.

Immigration Director-General Mustafar Ali confirmed that Ri had flown out of the country, escorted by two North Korean Embassy officials, and that “he is blacklisted from entering Malaysia.”

Malaysia is looking for seven other North Korean suspects, four of whom are believed to have left the country on Feb. 13, the day Kim died. Two other people remain in custody, both women — one Indonesian, one Vietnamese — accused of smearing Kim’s face with VX, a banned nerve agent considered a weapon of mass destruction.

Police have said three other North Korean suspects, including an official at the North Korean Embassy and an employee of Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, are believed to still be in the country.

National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar said an arrest warrant was issued Friday for Kim Uk Il, the Air Koryo employee. Police say he arrived in Malaysia on Jan. 29, about two weeks before Kim was killed. Malaysian authorities have not said why they want to arrest Kim Uk Il.

The murder has soured relations between Malaysia and North Korea, which had maintained friendly ties for decades. On Thursday, Malaysia announced it is scrapping visa-free entry for North Koreans.

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry ramped up the pressure Friday, saying it is “greatly concerned” about the use of the nerve agent. “Its use at a public place could have endangered the general public,” the ministry said in a statement.

Malaysia has not directly accused North Korea of being behind the killing, but the statement came hours after a North Korean envoy rejected a Malaysian autopsy finding that VX killed Kim, saying the man probably died of a heart attack because he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Ri Tong Il, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations, also said that if VX had been used, others besides Kim would have been killed or sickened.

Khalid brushed off the claim of a heart attack. “We have our experts who are qualified to determine the cause of death of Kim Chol. Our investigations, supported by expert reports, confirmed that Kim Chol was murdered. North Korea can say what they like, but the facts remain,” Khalid said.

The women charged with murdering Kim were caught on grainy surveillance video smearing what Malaysian authorities say was VX on his face and eyes, though both say they were duped into thinking they were playing a harmless prank.

Kim died within 20 minutes.

No bystanders reported falling ill.

Malaysia’s finding that VX killed Kim boosted speculation that North Korea orchestrated the attack. Experts say the oily poison was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory, and North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons, including VX.

North Korea is trying to retrieve Kim’s body but has not acknowledged that the victim is Kim Jong Un’s half brother. North Korea refers to the victim as Kim Chol, the name on the diplomatic passport he was carrying when he died.

Malaysian police are seeking next of kin who could provide a DNA sample and make a positive identification — steps they say are needed for authorities to give up the body. Kim is believed to have two sons and a daughter with two women living in Beijing and Macau.

Malaysian police said the female suspects had been trained to go immediately to the bathroom and wash their hands after attacking Kim. The police said the four North Korean suspects who left the country the day of the killing put the VX liquid on the women’s hands.

Police can’t confirm whether the two women may have been given antidotes before the attack. An antidote, atropine, can be injected after exposure and is carried by medics in war zones where weapons of mass destruction are suspected.

North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regime. Kim was not known to be seeking political power, but his position as eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since it was founded could have made him appear to be a danger.

Kim reportedly fell out of favor with his father, the late Kim Jong Il, in 2001 after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.