KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Three North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of the estranged half-brother of their country’s leader returned home on Friday (March 31) along with the body of victim Kim Jong Nam after Malaysia agreed a swop deal with the reclusive state.
Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference that police took statements from the three North Koreans before they were allowed to leave the country.
China’s Foreign ministry confirmed the remains of a North Korean citizen were returned to North Korea along with “relevant” North Korean citizens, in a case that US and South Korean officials regarded as state-sponsored assassination.
Addressing a daily news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang gave no other details on the swop that saw the North Koreans return home from Kuala Lumpur via Beijing.
Malaysian authorities released Kim’s body on Thursday in a deal that secured the release of nine Malaysian citizens held in Pyongyang after a drawn out diplomatic spat.
Kim, who had been living in exile for several years, was killed at Kuala Lumpur’s airport on Feb 13 in a bizarre assassination using VX nerve agent, a chemical so lethal that it is on a UN list of weapons of mass destruction.
Malaysian police had named eight North Koreans they wanted to question in the case, including the three who were given safe passage to leave Malaysia on Thursday evening.
Television footage obtained by Reuters from Japanese media showed Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk Il, a North Korean state airline employee on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The men were identifiable from handouts released by the Malaysian police during their investigation.
Malaysian media reported that a third North Korean, Ri Ji U, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was also allowed to go home.
Malaysian prosecutors have charged two women – an Indonesian and a Vietnamese – with killing him, but South Korean and US officials had regarded them as pawns in an operation carried out by North Korean agents.
North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, had issued a“standing order” for his elder half-brother’s assassination, according to some South Korean lawmakers, and there was a failed attempt on his life in 2012.
The other North Koreans named by Malaysian investigators are all back in North Korea.
Police believe four fled Malaysia on the same day as the murder and another was held for a week before being released due to insufficient evidence.
Angered by the probe, North Korea issued a travel ban on Malaysians earlier this month, trapping three diplomats and six family members – including four children – in Pyongyang.
Malaysia, which had previously friendly ties with the unpredictable nuclear-armed state, responded with a ban of its own, but was left with little option but to accede to North Korea’s demands for the return of the body and safe passage for the three nationals hiding in the embassy.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is currently on an official visit in India, issued a statement announcing the return of the body, but did not mention Kim by name.
“Following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea, the coroner has approved the release of the body,” Najib said, adding that the murder investigation would continue.
North Korea has maintained that the dead man is not Kim Jong Nam and that the body is that of Kim Chol, the name given in a passport found on the victim.
Najib’s statement did not mention the safe passage given to the North Koreans that police had wanted to question, but it did say the travel ban on North Koreans leaving Malaysia had been lifted.
North Korea also released a statement saying both countries managed to “resolve issues arising from the death of a DPRK national.”
The swop agreement brings to an end nearly seven weeks of diplomatic standoff, with Pyongyang finally getting its way, analysts said.
“It is a win (for North Korea), clearly,” Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University said on the swap deal. “I presume the Malaysians decided not to get too involved in a remote country’s palace intrigues, and wanted their hostages back.”
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 the isolated, nuclear-armed nation.
Fearful of his half-brother’s regime, he spent the last few years living in exile in the Chinese territory of Macau, and his family has gone into hiding since the murder.
The nine Malaysians who had been trapped in Pyongyang arrived in Kuala Lumpur early Friday morning on board a small Bombardier business jet operated by the Malaysian air force.
Pilot Hasrizan Kamis said the crew dressed in civilian clothes as a “precautionary step” for the mission.
According to the Plane Finder tracking website the Bombardier took off from Pyongyang at the same time that the Malaysian Airlines flight MH360 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.
Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain, one of the returning diplomats, said it had been an anxious period but they “were not particularly harassed” by the North Korean authorities.
The episode, however, is likely to have cost North Korea one of its few friends.
“I think this relationship is going to go into cold storage for a very long time,” said Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian diplomat.