Saturday 20 January 2018

North Korean suspect arrested over airport assassination

Brotherly love? Kim Jong-nam (left) and Kim Jong-un
Brotherly love? Kim Jong-nam (left) and Kim Jong-un

Raf Sanchez

Malaysian police said yesterday that they had arrested a North Korean man in connection with the murder of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as a diplomatic spat over his body escalated.

Kim Jong-nam died last week after being assaulted at Kuala Lumpur Airport with what was thought to be a fast-acting poison. South Korean and US officials have said he was assassinated by North Korean agents.

Malaysian police said the latest arrest connected with the murder was made last Friday night, and the suspect was identified as Ri Jong Chol, born on May 6, 1970. He was in possession of a Malaysian i-Kad, an identification card given to foreign workers, they added. "He is suspected to be involved in the death of a North Korean male," read a statement.

The police chief for Selangor state, Abdul Samah, said the suspect had been remanded in police custody.

Two female suspects, one an Indonesian and the other carrying Vietnamese travel documents, have already been arrested, while a Malaysian man has also been detained. At least three more suspects are at large, government sources have said.

Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic control of isolated, nuclear-armed North Korea.

South Korea's intelligence agency told lawmakers in Seoul that Kim had been living with his second wife in the Chinese territory of Macau, under China's protection.

He had been at Kuala Lumpur Airport to catch a flight to Macau when he was killed. Samah said the autopsy report was not yet complete, but dismissed media reports that a second post-mortem would have to be conducted.

North Korea said in the early hours of yesterday that it would categorically reject Malaysia's autopsy report and accused Malaysia of "colluding with outside forces", in a veiled reference to South Korea.

Malaysia hit back by saying the country's rules must be followed. The foreign ministry has yet to make any comment.

The case threatens to weaken North Korea's ties with Malaysia, one of the few countries that has maintained good diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

North Korea's nuclear arms and weapons programmes have alarmed the West, most recently its test of a ballistic missile earlier this month in its first direct challenge to the international community since Donald Trump became US president.

Pyongyang's main ally and trading partner is China, which is irritated by its repeated aggressive actions but rejects suggestions from the US and others that it could do more to rein in its neighbour.

Yesterday, China said it had further tightened trade restrictions with North Korea by suspending all imports of coal, although it did not say why. Coal exports to China are a vital source of revenue for Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-nam was assaulted at the low-cost terminal at Kuala Lumpur Airport last Monday. He died on the way to hospital. Last Friday North Korea demanded that his body be released immediately. It had earlier tried to persuade Malaysian authorities not to carry out an autopsy.

"The Malaysian side forced the post-mortem without our permission and witnessing," the North Korean ambassador told reporters outside the hospital. "We will categorically reject the result of the post-mortem."

He said Kim Jong-nam had a diplomatic passport and was under the consular protection of North Korea.

The apparent assassination is strengthening bipartisan calls for the US to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation lifted nine years ago. Doing so would increase the country's isolation, while potentially complicating any future diplomacy to halt its nuclear and missile programmes.

The US kept North Korea on its terrorism blacklist for two decades after the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner killed 115 people. But President George W Bush lifted the designation in 2008 to smooth the way for aid-for-disarmament negotiations. The concession proved of little value as the talks collapsed soon after and never resumed.

Currently, the US considers only Iran, Sudan and Syria as terrorism sponsors. To reimpose the designation, Washington would have to determine that it had "repeatedly" provided support for acts of international terrorism. Last June, the department said North Korea "is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts" since the plane attack 30 years ago.

House lawmakers are pushing for a fresh review of the evidence. Last week's death could make the case more persuasive.

Sunday Independent

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