Caught Between Two Koreas, Malaysia Dithers on Kim Killing

South and North Korean diplomats are battling to persuade Malaysian authorities of diametrically different versions of the February 13 Kuala Lumpur International Airport assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who had exiled himself out of a well-founded belief he could be murdered.

One result may have been to stall the investigation, including the results of an autopsy that North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia has said he will never accept. South Korean sources believe Malaysia is reluctant to acknowledge the assassination was on orders from North Korea, which is spreading the word that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and the US Central Intelligence Agency conspired to murder Jong-nam, 45, eldest son of the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.

Malaysians Dither

Malaysia is in the unusual position of having diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea, and the North’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur in recent years has been a hub for North Korean activities in the region, including money, drug and arms deals. North Korea buys raw materials including rubber and palm oil, two of Malaysia’s biggest agricultural exports. Malaysia imports iron and steel. Human rights researchers have accused Malaysia of using North Korean workers, who are little more than slave labor, on plantations in Sarawak. The North Korean population in Malaysia is believed to number in the hundreds.

The rivalry between the two Koreas helps explain why Malaysian officials have yet to release the results of the autopsy, which they ordered over the strenuous objections of the North Korean ambassador, Kang Chol. So controversial is the autopsy that Malaysians have let it be known the results remain “inconclusive” while they search for trace amounts of the chemical agent supposedly responsible for his death.

South Korean experts believe Kim Jong-nam succumbed to a fast-acting nerve gas from a cloth pressed on his face by a 29-year-old Vietnamese woman, Doan Thi Huong, who was wearing a T-shirt with the letters “LOL.” Captured on CCTV, the image of the T-shirt has gone viral as Malaysians dub her “the LOL lady” and the assassination “the LOL murder.” Kim died shortly after as he was rushed to a hospital.

What sort of ‘prank’?

Huong’s immediate co-conspirator is alleged to have been an Indonesian woman named Siti Aisyah, 25, employed as a maid, whose role was to distract Kim while Huong attacked with the cloth. Siti has told police she thought she was involved in “a prank” for reality TV along with her boyfriend, Muhammad Farid bin Jalaluddin, a Malaysian taxi driver, also held, who had driven her to the airport.

In addition to Huong and Siti Aisyah, Ri-Jong-chol, 47, a North Korean chemical expert employed by an IT company in Kuala Lumpur, has been arrested. Police are looking for four other North Koreans but believe they left the day of the attack.

One reason for a second autopsy, in the view of experts in South Korea, would be to identify the liquefied nerve gas of a type believed to have been developed in the old Soviet Union and used by the Russians in a number of assassinations. The gas, many times more powerful than sarin, is a product of North Korea’s chemical and biological warfare laboratory that South Koreans warn could strike more targets in South Korea and elsewhere.

Malaysian officials have been uneasy about placing the blame on North Korea since North Korea’s ambassador showed up at the mortuary declaring the autopsy was conducted “without our permission" and that "we will categorically reject the result.” Kang hinted darkly that “outside forces” – meaning the South Koreans and Americans – were looking for a pretext to explain Jong-nam’s demise from a supposed “heart attack” for which no autopsy was needed.

Those remarks just added to the view that North Korea was responsible.

Angry China Strikes Back

China has suspended imports of North Korean coal, 42 percent of its exports to China, by far its biggest trading partner. The assassination of Kim Jong-nam, and North Korea’s test the day before of a new model mid-range missile, are believed to lie behind this unexpected blow to the North’s fragile economy.

The Chinese had regarded Kim Jong-nam as a foil to 32-year-old Kim Jong-un – useful as a threat even if they had no intention of attempting to place him in power in Pyongyang. China had been protecting Jong-nam and his family, including his second wife, a son and daughter, in Macau, to which he was about to return when assassinated. Jong-nam’s first wife lives near Beijing with another child, and he is believed to have had three other children by different women.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi attempted to mollify the North Koreans, promising the body would be handed over to their embassy after the autopsy.

That assurance, however, came with two catches. First, Malaysia asked for a sample of the DNA of North Korea’s ruling family in order to prove that Kim Jong-nam was a blood relative, and second, that the North Korean embassy, after taking possession of the body, should send it to Kim Jong-nam’s family in Macau.

Those qualifiers were viewed as a delaying action since North Korea was not expected to provide the DNA of Kim Jong-un or any of his relatives. Nor was there much likelihood that the North Korean embassy would send the body to Macau.

Assassination botched?

As the investigation dragged on, the impression was that the assassination had been badly botched. Kim Jong-un, at celebrations marking what would have been his father’s 75th birthday last Thursday in Pyongyang, was noticeably unsmiling and did not wave on leaving – giving the impression he was extremely unhappy.

The question remained why the plotters chose a crowded airport replete with CCTV cameras for the killing. Malaysian police rebuffed efforts by North Korean officials to meet the man. Another question was why the woman who killed Kim Jong-nam returned 48 hours later to the airport, where she was arrested on her way to check in for a flight to Vietnam.

One North Korean argument for recovering the body was that Kim Jong-nam had been carrying a North Korean diplomatic passport. In fact, however, he had been traveling under the name Kim Chol and was believed to have had multiple passports.

He had been living mainly outside North Korea after being caught by Japanese immigration officials trying to enter Japan in 2001 carrying a Dominican Republic passport. He told the Japanese at the time that he had wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland with his young son. That misadventure is believed to have ruined his chances of succeeding his father, who began grooming Jong-un, 13 years his junior, as heir to the throne.

Jong-nam may for a time have been responsible for overseas bank accounts in Macau, a transshipment point for North Korean arms, drugs and counterfeit US$100 bills, but Jong-un cut off funding for him after their father’s death. Jong-nam’s mother, Song Hye-rim, an actress whom Kim Jong-il never married, died in Moscow in 2002.

Complications over the money may have been one reason why Kim Jong-un, who has purged hundreds of officials and their family members, wanted Jong-nam out of the way. Another motivation may have been interviews that he gave saying he doubted that Jong-un would last long in power and that he opposed dynastic rule. Jong-nam is believed to have survived several assassination attempts before meeting his fate at the airport.

Until Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, the highest profile killing was that of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle by marriage of both Jong-nam and Jong-un. Accused of massive corruption and power-seeking, Jang was executed more than four years ago.

Among Jang’s executed associates was North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia – a fact that adds urgency to the pleas of the current North Korean ambassador for recovery of Kim Jong-nam’s body lest he too fall victim to Kim Jong-un’s wrath.

Donald Kirk is a long-time Korea watcher and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel