The body of the assassinated half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Pyongyang on Friday, apparently accompanied by three men initially named by Malaysian police as suspects in his murder.
Kim Jong-nam was attacked with the lethal nerve agent VX on February 13 in Kuala Lumpur airport, in an audacious Cold War-style operation that triggered a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea.
Malaysian national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said three North Koreans wanted for questioning had finally been interviewed and allowed to leave on the same plane carrying Kim’s body.
“We have obtained whatever we want from them… we are satisfied,” Bakar said. The three had been holed up in the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur for weeks.
Malaysian police had named eight North Koreans they wanted to question in the case, including the three given safe passage to leave.
Television footage obtained by Reuters from Japanese media showed Hyon Kwang-song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk-il, a North Korean state airline employee on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The police chief confirmed they were accompanied by compatriot Ri Ji- u, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
China confirmed that the body had arrived in Pyongyang – after transiting through Beijing – along with “relevant” North Korean nationals.
Both countries expelled each other’s ambassadors and barred their citizens from leaving, in a bitter standoff over the killing.
But late Thursday, Kuala Lumpur said it had agreed to send back the body to the North in exchange for nine of its citizens, who were returned to Malaysia early on Friday.
Malaysia’s police chief said the three North Koreans had been wanted for questioning because they were seen on CCTV near the airport attack.
“In the beginning we said we would like them to assist in the investigation and we have allowed them to go,” Khalid said in Kuala Lumpur.
He said police still wanted to question four other suspects believed to be in North Korea.
Malaysia had been waiting for family to claim the body and Khalid hinted that the North’s leader himself could have written the letter to claim the body. “Legally, Kim Jong-un is next of kin,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing that Beijing “offered necessary assistance to the transit of the body.”
Embarrassment to Pyongyang
The murder in Kuala Lumpur removed a potential claimant to the Kim throne – he was late leader Kim Jong-il’s first-born – who was an embarrassment to Pyongyang.
South Korea has blamed the North for the brazen killing, citing what they say was a standing order from Kim Jong-un to murder his exiled and estranged half-brother.
But the North denies this and denounced Malaysia’s investigation into the death as an attempt to smear the secretive regime.
It had insisted that the man, who it has not named, died of a heart attack.
Two women – one Vietnamese and one Indonesian – have been arrested and charged with the murder. Airport CCTV footage shows them approaching the 45-year-old victim and apparently smearing his face with a piece of cloth.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the body swap deal late Thursday, saying his government had “worked intensively behind the scenes” to reach an agreement.
He said the coroner approved release of Kim’s body after completion of the autopsy and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea.
Malaysia however has officially confirmed his identity using DNA evidence.