Northeast Asia | Third arrest but Malaysia stays tight with North Korea

Third arrest but Malaysia stays tight with North Korea

As police detain two more suspects, the assassination of Pyongyang's genial former heir apparent is set to become a complex diplomatic issue for Kuala Lumpur

February 16, 2017 6:52 PM (UTC+8)
Kim Jong Il, then North Korean leader, with his son, Kim Jong Nam in 1981 / AFP PHOTO / Handout
Kim Jong Il, then North Korean leader, with his son, Kim Jong Nam in 1981 / AFP PHOTO / Handout

While police on Thursday detained a third person for the assassination of the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister stressed that the bizarre killing will not affect ties between the two countries.

This assurance came despite US and South Korean government sources saying they believed Pyongyang agents carried out the killing.

“We maintain and we would like to strengthen our relationship with any foreign country that has established their embassy here,” Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in Kuala Lumpur.

According to the deputy prime minister, Malaysia may return the body of Kim Jong-nam at Pyongyang’s request, saying that although there are “procedures to be followed,” Kuala Lumpur’s policy is “that we have to honor our bilateral relations with any foreign country.”

Yet Malaysia has not, according to sources, bowed to North Korean demands to have an autopsy on Kim Jong-nam cancelled and are carrying on with a murder investigation that saw a second female and her boyfriend detained on Thursday.

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Links between Malaysia and North Korea are close, and Monday’s murder will continue to be an increasingly complex and delicate issue for Kuala Lumpur as it treads a precarious line between China, the US and North Korea.

Kuala Lumpur has closer links with Kim Jong-un than most in the region with Malaysia having numerous business ties, relatively lax travel restrictions and even direct air connections with North Korea.

In recent years it has become a venue for unofficial talks between Washington and Pyongyang, and any credible murder investigation will only put a strain on this relationship.

The second woman that has been detained – her travel documents bore the name of Siti Aishah, and listed her place of birth as Serang, Indonesia – has been remanded in custody for seven days.

This woman’s boyfriend – currently unidentified – was apprehended some hours later and the pair join another woman, with Vietnamese travel documents, who was taken in by Malaysian police at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Wednesday.

Kim Jong-nam was once North Korea’s heir apparent until he fell from grace after a peculiar incident when he traveled to Japan on a false passport to visit Disneyland in 2001.

In recent years he has lived a seemingly quiet but comfortable life, mostly in the Asian gambling hub of Macau, avoiding controversy and appearing relaxed about personal safety, according to sources close to him.

Friends in Macau said Kim Jong-nam was an outwardly calm man, often casually dressed, sometimes in jeans and sandals, and carried a Louis Vuitton shoulder satchel. He had a striking dragon tattoo on his back, a source who went to the gym with Kim told Reuters.

A Facebook page under the name Kim Chol, which appears to be his, includes friends from numerous countries including France, Singapore and Switzerland. It has photos of Kim in various locales including Macau and Shanghai, as well as pictures of dogs. Kim Chol was the name on the passport Kim Jong-nam used to travel to Malaysia, according to authorities there.

“I miss Europe,” he posted next to a 2008 picture of himself and a man standing on a yacht. “Living Las Vegas in Asia,” he posted in 2010. His “likes” include French musician Serge Gainsbourg and two bars in Singapore, including one called Girls Bar Kimidori. He also “liked” Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Kim Jong-un impersonator calling himself “Kim Jong-um.”

Kim Jong-nam was fatally assaulted at an airport in Kuala Lumpur on Monday with what was believed to be a fast-acting poison as he prepared to board a flight back to Macau.

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