The spat between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang over the alleged assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother has escalated, with the Malaysian police naming a North Korean diplomat in connection with the case and demanding that he surrender for questioning.
The North Korean Embassy hit back, citing diplomatic privileges. It questioned claims that a poison had been used to kill Mr Kim Jong Nam, who collapsed after two women rubbed a substance on his face at KL International Airport 2 (KLIA2) on Feb 13. The embassy also asked for the release of all suspects, including the "innocent females".
Police said the women knew they were using a toxin. They also added that they would "compel" the diplomat, who was avoiding them, to come in for an interview.
Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters yesterday that Mr Hyon Kwang Song, 44, the second secretary at the embassy, and Mr Kim Uk Il, 37, who works for North Korean airline Air Koryo, were being sought to aid investigations into the attack on Mr Kim.
"We hope the North Korean Embassy will cooperate. If not, we will compel them to come. We will issue a warrant of arrest," Tan Sri Khalid said. The men were still in Malaysia, he added, and the embassy has been uncooperative throughout the case.
It is unclear if the police will be able to question Mr Hyon, as he enjoys diplomatic immunity. Given the tension between the two countries, it is unlikely Pyongyang will waive the immunity of the officer, who is not a suspect at this point. Still, it was the first time the police had flagged his name.
The embassy in KL has repeatedly accused Malaysia of conspiring with its enemies to pin the blame for the murder on Pyongyang. This has led to strongly worded exchanges and the recall of Malaysia's ambassador from the secretive North-east Asian country.
"This is extremely insulting to the sovereignty of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, an illegal act infringing international laws and customs and the diplomatic privileges and, at the same time, clear evidence that Malaysia takes side with the South Korean allegations," the embassy said in a statement yesterday, referring to KL's demand that Mr Kim's next of kin provide DNA samples before his body is released.
Besides the two named yesterday, police are also seeking another North Korean person of interest known as Ri Ji U, 30, and four North Korean suspects whom Mr Khalid said had fled to Pyongyang.
Another four suspects, including a North Korean based in KL, have been arrested after Mr Kim was attacked at KLIA2 last week. Two women had smeared his face with a liquid, and Mr Kim died on the way to hospital the same day.
The women - Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 29, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25 - claimed they believed they were merely playing a prank.
The North Korean Embassy backed them, saying that if the women had used poison, it would have killed them too.
Mr Khalid dismissed such claims.
"We strongly believe it is a planned thing, and they have been trained to do that," he said. "They wiped the face of the deceased and after that they went away and were instructed to clean their hands. They knew it was toxic."
He also revealed that security had been stepped up at Hospital Kuala Lumpur after someone attempted to break into the morgue where Mr Kim's body lay.