North Korea’s retrieval of the body of the assassinated half brother of leader Kim Jong-un is aimed at destroying evidence of the regime’s involvement in the brutal killing, analysts say.
Kim Jong-nam was killed with the lethal nerve agent VX on February 13 in a Kuala Lumpur airport, in a brutally clinical operation which removed a potential claimant to the Kim throne – he was late leader Kim Jong-il’s first-born – who was an embarrassment to Pyongyang.
The murder triggered a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea, which expelled each other’s ambassadors and barred their citizens from leaving.
But in a deal announced by both, they said they would lift their travel bans, and Kuala Lumpur would send the body to North Korea.
Analysts say Pyongyang will immediately dispose of the corpse and try to bury the issue.
“They will burn the body,” said Kim Kwang-jin, a defector-turned-researcher at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy.
Pyongyang will declare the man had died of natural causes and blame the controversy on its opponents, said Kim.
“North Korea will say that its citizen named Kim Chol died from a heart attack and claim that enemies South Korea and the US have stirred up drama,” he said.
Pyongyang has refused to confirm the identity of the victim, who was carrying a North Korean passport bearing the name Kim Chol when he was killed.
Whether North Korea admits it or not, everyone knows who did it
Malaysia however has officially confirmed his identity using DNA evidence, and had said it had been waiting for his next of kin to claim the body.
The joint statement referred to the North providing documentation from the family – which could mean Kim Jong-un himself or any of his relatives, rather than the dead man’s wives or children. At the same time, destroying the evidence also avoids it becoming a focal point for opponents of the regime, added researcher Kim, who worked for the North’s state insurance company before fleeing to the South.
“It is natural for them to want the body because it will continue to draw attention if it is anywhere else,” he told AFP.
South Korea has blamed Pyongyang for the Cold War-style killing, citing what officials say was a standing order from North Korea’s leader to eliminate his exiled and estranged half-brother.
Some analysts say the North will be very discreet about the handling of Kim’s body to keep the truth of the incident a secret from its own citizens.
“Kim Jong-nam’s existence and his murder are like a Pandora’s box that cannot be known by the people,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
“Everything will be done in secret with minimal procedures,” he said.
Even so, analysts said, retrieving the corpse would not resolve the repercussions of the assassination for Pyongyang.
“The case has been closed for now and the body swap was a small victory by the North,” said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.
But Pyongyang had suffered “irreparable damage” from Kim’s killing, which cemented its inhumane image and set it at loggerheads with one of its few diplomatic friends, he said.
South Korea has repeatedly referred to the assassination as a clear example of the North Korean leadership’s brutality and recklessness.
“Whether North Korea admits it or not,” Chang said, “everyone knows who did it.”