North Korean arrested for Kim Jong Nam's murder is in Malaysia on work visa but operates like businessman

Mr Chong Ah Kow, owner of Tombo enterprise, speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
Mr Chong Ah Kow, owner of Tombo enterprise, speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur. ST PHOTO: TRINNA LEONG

KUALA LUMPUR - A 47-year-old North Korean man arrested by Malaysian police in connection with the death of Mr Kim Jong Nam was in Malaysia on a work visa and had business discussions with the company which "hired" him.

Tombo Enterprise, a healthcare medication company based in Kuala Lumpur, has helped to obtain the work visa for Ri Jong Chol since 2013 but it says he was not directly employed.

"I treated him as a businessman," Mr Chong Ah Kow, the owner of Tombo Enterprise, told reporters on Monday (Feb 20).

He said he was introduced to Ri by the latter's uncle who is a scientist in North Korea specialising in mushroom extract. 

Mr Chong and Ri explored business opportunities in the import and export of mainly palm oil and herbal extracts, but hardly any real transaction transpired due to their inability to agree on the pricing of products.

Mr Chong Ah Kow showing reporters his conversation via mobile phone messages with Ri Jong Chol's daughter who acted as translator. ST PHOTO: TRINNA LEONG

He described Ri as a humble and soft spoken man, but they did not have close ties, having met only five times in person.

"I got a shock," Mr Chong said when asked about his reaction to news that Ri was arrested in connection with the murder of Mr Kim at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 last Monday.

He said he communicated with Ri mostly via messaging apps. Ri's daughter, a student at Help University in Kuala Lumpur , acted as the translator. He described Ri's daughter as around 20 years old.

Police had said Ri was working in Malaysia as an IT employee. Mr Chong, however, said Ri had the intention to set up an IT business but he had no further knowledge on his activities in Malaysia.

Ri's migrant identification reportedly expired a week before the attack on Mr Kim.

Another four North Korean suspects fled on the day of the murder, and are believed to have returned to Pyongyang.

The number of North Korean suspects has led South Korea to assert that Mr Kim Jong Un's government ordered the assassination of his estranged sibling.

Ri, who is from Pyongyang, graduated in the science and medicine field from a university in North Korea in 2000, The Star Online reported. The daily said that about 10 years later, Ri was involved in research at a centre in Kolkata, India, until 2011. He reportedly returned to Pyongyang before coming to Malaysia.