Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Feb 19 – Malaysian police said Sunday they believe five North Koreans were involved in the murder of the half-brother of leader Kim Jong-Un, with four having fled the country on the day of the killing.
Seoul said the announcement proved Pyongyang was behind the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, who died after being squirted in the face with an unidentified liquid at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday.
The case has also sparked a diplomatic row between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, after Malaysia rejected demands quickly to hand the body over to the North.
Four North Korean men were being sought over the killing, Deputy Inspector-General of Police Noor Rashid Ibrahim told a press conference, in addition to their 46-year old compatriot Ri Jong Chol who was arrested in Kuala Lumpur Saturday.
Suspects Ri Ji Hyon, O Jong Gil, Ri Jae Nam and Hong Song Sac, aged between 33 and 57, entered Malaysia in February or late January, the police chief said.
Three more North Koreans were wanted for questioning, he said.
Officers have already arrested one North Korean, an Indonesian woman and her Malaysian boyfriend, as well as a Vietnamese woman.
“Considering that five suspects are North Korean nationals, we view that the North Korean government is behind the incident,” Seoul’s unification ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said immediately after Sunday’s announcement.
The deputy police chief refused to comment on any political motive for the killing, saying only that investigations were ongoing.
Pyongyang has demanded Jong-Nam’s body be returned but Malaysia has said it must remain in the country until it is identified through a DNA sample from a family member.
“We are trying very hard to get the next of kin to come and assist us in the investigation,” Noor Rashid said, but added no such family member had yet come forward.
Police were still waiting for the results of an autopsy conducted on Wednesday, he said.
– Spa masseuse suspect –
Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong, 28, worked as an “entertainment outlet employee”, police said Sunday, while 25-year-old Indonesian Siti Aishah was a masseuse at a spa.
Huong grew up in a small rice farming village in Vietnam’s Nam Dinh province and left around 10 years ago, former neighbours said, but always stood out on visits back home.
“She has always been very fashionable, with colourful hair,” neighbour Maria Nguyen told AFP, adding that every lunar new year Huong would return to the village with a different foreign boyfriend.
Huong was seen in CCTV images at Kuala Lumpur airport wearing a white top with the letters “LOL” emblazoned on the front, according to Malaysian media.
Authorities in Hanoi have yet to confirm whether the woman identified by Malaysia as Doan Thi Huong is a Vietnamese national, but Ngyuen said “we knew one hundred percent it was her”.
Police have been making regular visits to the village since the news broke, she added.
Huong’s brother Joseph Doan said they had been given little information on what had happened to his sister. He said he had not been in contact with her much and did not know what she did for work.
Indonesian Police Chief Tito Karnavian said he had information from Malaysia that Aishah was tricked into thinking she was simply taking part in a prank for a reality TV show, but Noor Rashid would not comment on the claim.
The drama erupted on Monday as Jong-Nam prepared to board a plane to Macau, where he has been living in recent years. Malaysian police say the 45-year-old was jumped by two women who squirted liquid in his face.
He suffered a seizure and died before arriving at hospital.
He was once thought to be the natural successor to his father, the then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
But after Jong-Il’s death in 2011 the succession went instead to his younger half-brother Kim Jong-Un.
Reports of purges and executions have emerged from the current regime as Jong-Un tries to strengthen his grip on power in the face of international pressure over his nuclear and missile programmes.
South Korea has cited a “standing order” from Jong-Un to kill his sibling, and a failed assassination bid in 2012 after Jong-Nam criticised the regime.