The sole North Korean held by Malaysian authorities for the murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was released from custody and deported on Friday.
Tensions between Malaysia and North Korea continue to escalate, resulting in new travel restrictions for North Koreans, and possibly a crackdown on their sanctions-evading business operations.
The BBC quotes Malaysian officials denying that pressure from Pyongyang resulted in the release of Ri Jong-chol, the 47-year-old who lived in Malaysia for about three years before the death of Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13.
The Straits Times has police chief Khalid Abu Bakar expressing regret and frustration over Ri’s release, saying the Malaysian police still believe he was involved in the Kim assassination, but lack enough evidence to charge him.
Ri was not only deported but blacklisted from entering Malaysia again. “He entered the country with the intention to work with a company, but police investigations found that he did not work at the said company,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, according to Malay Mail Online. “Instead, he engaged himself in activities which the Malaysian government never approved… We do not want such elements in our country.”
The company Ahmad Zahid referred to is Glocom, described by Forbes as a front company that helps North Korea evade international sanctions. Malaysian connections have played a major role in this endeavor until now, but the death of Kim Jong-nam and North Korea’s subsequent conduct appear to have convinced the Malaysian government to accelerate its investigation of Glocom.
Ahmad Zahid strongly hinted that he believes other suspects in the investigation are hiding at the North Korean embassy. “As long as a person is inside any premise of any embassy, we have to follow the rules of the diplomatic procedures. The warrant is not only to be served, but some diplomatic procedures have to be followed,” he said, musing that embassy staff should “respect the legal system, ethics, culture and the normal practice in our country, as well as the conduct of international diplomacy.”
“As long as a person is inside any premise of any embassy, we have to follow the rules of the diplomatic procedures. The warrant is not only to be served, but some diplomatic procedures have to be followed,” he said, musing that embassy staff should “respect the legal system, ethics, culture and the normal practice in our country, as well as the conduct of international diplomacy.”
According to police chief Bakar, a formal request has been filed with the North Korean government to secure the cooperation of staff at their embassy in Malaysia.
Ri left police custody in a six-vehicle convoy, wearing a bulletproof vest, and was dispatched to Pyongyang by way of Beijing. No sooner was he on his way then Malaysian police issued an arrest warrant for another suspect, Kim Uk-il, a 37-year-old employee of North Korea’s state airline, Air Koryo. Police said they have politely requested Kim’s cooperation, but he has refused to do so, obliging them to issue a warrant.
Malaysia has canceled visa-free travel for all North Koreans, and is reportedly tightening screening procedures for North Korean travelers at its airports. Until now, Malaysia was one of the few nations North Koreans could visit without a visa. There are thought to be about 1,000 North Koreans living in the country.
The Nikkei Asian Review sees Malaysia “putting the screws” to North Korea over Kim Jong-nam’s murder, viewing the revocation of visa-free travel as the first step in a process that could end with economic sanctions, the severing of diplomatic ties, or even the expulsion of North Korea’s ambassador.
According to Nikkei, Malaysians are angry at Kim’s murder and North Korea’s insults to Malaysia, including heated demands for the immediate surrender of Kim’s body, and insinuations that Malaysia is acting as a puppet of South Korea and the United States.
“If the rebukes keep coming from the relevant embassy, they will pay a heavy price,” said Ahmad Zahid on Friday, in response to condemnations from North Korean ambassador Kang Chol.
However, The Star Online quotes International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed saying there will be no trade embargo against North Korea.
“If private companies see they can make money by doing business with them, they have to assess the risks themselves,” Mustapa said from a media conference in Kuala Lumpur. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of North Korean trade, which according to The Star Online is “mostly palm-oil related.”