KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia has reached a deadlock in its probe into the apparent assassination last month of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
The killing of Kim Jong Nam, who had criticized North Korea’s hereditary succession in an interview with a Japanese newspaper, was a crime planned by the reclusive country, South Korean intelligence has said.
Malaysia’s investigative options are running out, as only two women — an Indonesian and a Vietnamese both in their 20s — have so far been charged with the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
On Friday, Malaysia was forced to release Ri Jong Chol, the only North Korean who had been arrested over the case, due to lack of evidence. He was deported to Beijing.
On Saturday, speaking publicly for the first time since his detention, Ri said the Malaysian police probe was a ploy to “impair” North Korea’s dignity.
Ri said police had shown him mobile phone records and an envelope that they insisted had previously contained poison, telling him he could “live a nice life” in Malaysia if he admitted his guilt.
As Ri had allegedly given the two women and others a ride to the airport, it was hoped that he could reveal key details of the Feb. 13 attack, in which the two women are suspected of using their bare hands to apply a toxic chemical to Kim Jong Nam’s face.
“There are always challenges in all investigations. We will continue collecting evidence and building up our case,” Malaysia’s national police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said in a text message to Kyodo News.
The investigation, however, is widely expected to come up empty, as seven other North Korean men allegedly linked to the assault are still at large, analysts say.
An arrest warrant has been issued for one of the seven — Kim Uk Il, an employee of North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo. He is believed to be inside his country’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur and is unlikely to appear for questioning.
Malaysian authorities have acknowledged it may be difficult to catch Kim Uk Il if he has really taken refuge in the embassy. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations requires the hosting state to prevent any disturbance of the peace of a diplomatic mission or impairment of its dignity.
The two women, who were charged Wednesday with the murder, have also denied any wrongdoing. They earlier indicated that they were duped into believing that there were taking part in a TV prank show.
“We only have the two who are physically in the act, but who claimed they thought they are in a prank show,” Pathman Sundramoorthy, a criminologist at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, told Kyodo News.
“We don’t have the masterminds. And (there is) no way the North Koreans will hand them over. I don’t know whether we will get to the bottom of this case without the main players,” he said.
“This is going to be one of the mysteries with no answers,” he added, suggesting it is almost impossible to prove that North Korea was behind the crime.
With investigations at a standstill, attention is turning to the fate of the body of Kim Jong Nam, who had long led a life in exile under the protection of China. His corpse remains at a hospital morgue in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam has repeated his government’s position that it first needs to conclusively determine the identity of the 45-year-old’s body through DNA samples from his next of kin before releasing it to relatives.
Brushing aside a request from North Korea to secure the early return of the body, Subramaniam said, “We will only release the body to the rightful people, which is his family,” according to local media.
But more than two weeks after the incident, Kim Jong Nam’s family members have yet to come forward.
“Because of the implications of this international case, the Malaysian government will have to decide on the next course of action if the next of kin fails to turn up and claim the body after a long period,” Subramaniam was quoted as saying.
Kim died within 15 to 20 minutes after the women smeared VX, a lethal, internationally banned substance, on his face, Malaysian authorities earlier said.
North Korea has rejected the view that the nerve agent was used to kill one of its citizens, steering clear of naming him as Kim Jong Nam, and has requested samples taken by investigators be sent to an international chemical weapons body.
Since the poison attack, Pyongyang has also argued that Malaysia’s probe into the case is not impartial and that the country is “in collusion” with forces “hostile” to North Korea.
In return, Malaysia, angered by what it sees as a series of “diplomatically rude” remarks by the North Korea, has recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang, and on Saturday expelled the North Korean ambassador, Kang Chol.
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the Foreign Ministry had informed the North Korean government that Kang had been declared persona non grata and that “he is expected to leave Malaysia within 48 hours” from 6 p.m. Saturday.
Malaysia had warned Kang that he would “pay a heavy price” if he continued to hurl accusations at it.
Malaysia, which established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973 when anti-Western Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in power, is only one of a handful of countries in the world that has an embassy in Pyongyang.
Once-amicable bilateral ties have been sharply deteriorating in the wake of the murder.