A North Korean citizen previously linked to the death of Kim Jong Nam will be released and deported due to lack of evidence, Malaysia’s Attorney General Mohamad Apandi Ali said on Thursday.
Ri Jong Chol was taken into custody on February 17, believed by authorities to be linked to the murder just four days earlier of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
He will be handed over to immigration authorities on tomorrow, according to Deputy Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Noor Rashid Ibrahim.
The news comes on the same day that Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that North Koreans will now be required to obtain a visa to visit the country, in a move that will come into force on March 6.
Hamidi said that the decision was taken to enhance national security in light of recent events – a clear reference to last month’s killing of Kim Jong Nam.
“We will gazette this and visas for North Korean visitors are a must starting Monday,” he told press.
So far eight North Koreans have been linked to the death of Kim Jong Nam, of which Ri Jong Chol was the only one to be taken into custody.
Four are believed to have returned to Pyongyang, two – one a diplomat at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur and one a staff member of Air Koryo, the DPRK’s national airliner – are believed to be in hiding in the embassy, one is Ri Ji U, who is believed to still be in Malaysia, and the last is Ri Jong Chol.
Two further female suspects, Sitia Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong – Indonesian and Vietnamese citizens respectively – were charged with murder on Wednesday. Under Section 302 of the Malaysian penal code, convicted murderers receive the death penalty.
The decision to end visa-free travel ends a policy in place since 2009, with Malaysia only one of a handful on earth which allowed North Koreans to visit visa-free – part of an agreement intended to promote tourism between the two countries.
It is unclear whether North Korea will renege on its side of the agreement: the official website of the DPRK’s main tourism agency says, as of time of publication, that “Malaysian passport holders do not require a visa to travel to DPR Korea, only a simple process for an entry-permit is needed.”
The 2009 agreement was in line with the relatively good diplomatic relations which existed between Malaysia and North Korea at the time, and as recently as February 10 the two signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) focused on “culture, arts and heritage” sharing.
But relations have been severely strained by the death of Kim Jong Nam. The revelation last week that North Korea may have used the nerve agent VX at KLIA2, in particular, has sparked outrage in Malaysia and among the international community.
VX has no known use beyond as a chemical weapon, and is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by United Nations Resolution 687.
North Korea has so far strongly denied any connection to the murder of the DPRK citizen they refer to as “Kim Chol” – a pseudonym used by the late Kim Jong Nam on travel documents and social media – and state media argued on Wednesday that the allegations are part of a U.S.-South Korean plot against Pyongyang.
On Tuesday, after over a week of back and forth between the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysian authorities, a delegation, led by the country’s former deputy permanent representative to the UN Ri Tong Il, arrived in Malaysia.
Much of the diplomatic dispute between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang lies in a fight over the body of the deceased. North Korean authorities have, since the early days of the investigation, demanded that Malaysian police hand over the body to them.
Malaysian authorities, however, have insisted that they cannot hand over the body until a “next-of-kin” requests it, and until a DNA test can confirm that the dead man is, as is widely believed, Kim Jong Nam.
On Thursday Malaysia’s foreign ministry, also known as Wisma Putra, announced it had received a request from the recently arrived North Korean delegation for a meeting to discuss the returning of the body.
Malaysia’s health minister, Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam, however, insisted that they would not be able to return the body to the North until next of kin came forward.
“We want to reach a conclusion in this matter,” he said yesterday. “We are not giving a deadline or time frame for the next of kin to identify and claim the body.”
“If eventually no one comes forward to identify and claim it, then a decision will have to be made, and it will be made by the Government.”
Additional reporting: Dagyum Ji
Featured image: Peter Gronemann
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