Strange developments continue in the politically-charged Kim Jong-nam murder case, which has created a good deal of tension between China, North Korea, and Malaysia where the assassination occurred.
Malaysian police have announced they wish to question a North Korean diplomat in the case, a move guaranteed to enrage Pyongyang further. The victim was the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said on Wednesday that his department wants to question Hyon Kwang Song, 44, a second secretary at the North Korean embassy. They also want to interview Kim Uk Il, 37, who works for North Korea’s state airline, Air Koryo.
“They’ve been called in for assistance. We hope the embassy will cooperate with us and allow us to interview them quickly or else we will compel them to come to us,” Khalid said, as quoted by Reuters. This would suggest he thinks the two North Koreans are hiding in the embassy, although he said this could not be confirmed.
Reuters reports that one North Korean is already in custody and another may be at large in Malaysia, while four others of interest to the authorities have already returned to Pyongyang.
The Associated Press quotes Khalid saying the four who fled Kuala Lumpur after the attack and made it back to North Korea are the ones who provided the toxin. Malaysia has asked North Korea to return them for questioning, without success.
Khalid also denied reports that the two women who killed Kim Jong-nam were innocent dupes who mistakenly believed they were smearing a harmless substance on his face in a prank.
“The two female suspects knew that the substance they had was toxic. We don’t know what kind of chemical was used,” he declared. He said the assailants rehearsed their attack at several shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur before striking Kim Jong-nam at the airport and had been trained in how to handle the deadly substance with their bare hands.
The two women, one of them Vietnamese and the other Indonesian, are in the custody of Malaysian police. North Korea has called for all three to be released. The North Korean ambassador also objected to the autopsy performed on the victim.
The New York Times writes that South Korean intelligence officials have a term for people like the women accused of Kim’s murder: “lizard’s tails” because they are “expendable assets to be cast off after an operation.” The four North Koreans who escaped back to Pyongyang would have been their handlers in this scenario.
Sky News reports that there is security at the morgue where Kim Jong-nam’s body is being kept because unknown individuals have attempted to break in and steal the corpse. No one from the family has filed a formal claim for the body yet.
The Associated Press reports that forensic toxicologists see the murder as “one of the most bizarre cases in the books,” and have wondered how the two women could have handled a substance powerful enough to kill Kim Jong-nam before he could reach the hospital without suffering ill effects themselves. The autopsy has been extremely difficult:
Malaysian authorities said Tuesday that Kim did not suffer a heart attack and had no puncture wounds, such as those a needle would have left, but they were still awaiting lab reports.
Identifying a specific poison can be challenging, especially if a minute amount was used and it did not penetrate fat cells in the victim’s tissue. If the toxin only entered the bloodstream, it could leave the body very quickly. And even if a substance is found, it would need to match the symptoms Kim Jong Nam experienced before death. The more unique the poison is, the harder it is to find. Highly sophisticated facilities, such as in Japan or at the FBI’s crime lab in the U.S., are among those that may be needed to discover unusual toxic substances.
The New York Times mentions speculation that the weapon could have been a binary toxin — each woman coated her hands in a substance harmless to them, but deadly when mixed together on the victim’s face.
Also, the NYT reports there have been standing orders for North Korean agents to kill the dictator’s half-brother since 2011, and at least two previous attempts have been made, one of which would have involved bribing a taxi drive to run Kim Jong-nam down in the street. Recent reversals of fortune may have left him without the funds for bodyguard protection, making a successful hit possible.
North Korea has, to date, refused to acknowledge that the slain man is Kim Jong-nam, but South Korean embassy officials in Malaysia have reportedly identified him through fingerprint and DNA analysis.