Death Of A North Korean Prince: What Do We Know?

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother was murdered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia two weeks ago, and so far this case has taken more twists and turns than a mountain road.

Pyongyang tops the suspect list, but it has yet to be definitively proven that North Korea was behind the attack.

Malaysian authorities have several suspects in custody and are chasing half a dozen more.

Here’s what we know so far …

The Attack:

Two women, one from Indonesia and the other from Vietnam, met four North Korean men at an airport restaurant at about 7:30 A.M. Feb. 13. They conversed in a mixture of Malay and English, according to witnesses.

The two women approached a North Korean man in the departure hall in KLIA2 at around 9:00 A.M. He was waiting to board a 10:50 A.M. flight to Macau.

The two women, one in front and one behind, physically assaulted the man and then quickly departed, moving in separate directions.

Feeling dizzy, the victim visited the nearby information desk. He was escorted to the airport clinic downstairs, where he suffered a mild seizure. The man was loaded into an ambulance headed towards Putrajaya Hospital.

He died en route to the hospital, with authorities and medical professionals concluding that the man had been poisoned.

The victim’s death occurred within roughly 20 minutes of the attack, pointing to a highly potent toxin.

The Victim:

The victim, who was carrying a fake diplomatic passport under the name Kim Chol, has yet to be identified by family or DNA testing, but he is widely believed to be exiled North Korean prince Kim Jong-nam, whose mysterious death was as lonely and tragic as his life.

Kim, born May 10, 1971, was the eldest son of late second-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, a known film buff, and Song Hye-rim, a talented Korean actress. Because Kim Il-sung, Kim’s grandfather and founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, disapproved of Song, her relationship with Kim Jong-il and their child were kept a secret.

“Words cannot describe how deeply Jong Il loved his son,” wrote Song Hye-rang, Kim’s aunt and guardian who defected in the 1990s, but he could not show it publicly.

Kim spent most of his formative years abroad in Europe, mainly Moscow and Geneva, where he grew up with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. Kim Jong-il loved his son, but that love faded over time. His father moved on to new mistresses, one of which was Ko Yong-hui, mother to Kim’s younger half-brother Kim Jong-un.

“His father started a new life with another woman and had more sons and daughters. He transferred his abnormal ‘tearful love’ for Jong Nam to his new children,” Song explained in her memoirs.

As an adult, Kim lived in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where he served in the Ministry of People’s Security and, later, the Ministry of Public Security. In 1998, he was appointed to the DPRK Computer Committee, where he contributed greatly to North Korean technological development projects, including the development of the “intranet,” an internal network for civilian use with no actual connection to the outside world.

He rose through the ranks and even accompanied his father to Shanghai in January 2001 to discuss information technology projects with the Chinese. Some analysts said he was being groomed for power.

Some observers suspected that he was the heir apparent in North Korea, but that changed only a few months after the trip to Shanghai. In May 2001, Kim was caught sneaking into Japan with a fake passport. The incident greatly embarrassed Kim Jong-il, and Kim fell out of favor with his father. Kim went into exile shortly after the incident, clearing the way for Kim Jong-un to emerge as the unrivaled heir apparent.

Kim ultimately settled in Macau. He traveled frequently and is believed to have been married at least twice and to have lived with a few different women over the years. Some observers suggest that he had multiple families, possibly one in Beijing and another in Macau, and at least six children.

Kim reportedly visited North Korea for the last time at the end of 2011, when he attended his father’s funeral.

The Suspects:

Malaysian authorities have arrested two female suspects – 28-year-old Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and 25-year-old Siti Aisyah from Indonesia – for the murder of Kim Jong-nam.

Two days after the murder, Huong returned to the airport to board a flight to Vietnam. She was identified from airport CCTV footage, where she can be seen wearing a shirt with the acronym ‘LOL’ stitched into it.

Later in the day, Malaysian authorities picked up Aisyah’s boyfriend, 26-year-old Muhammad Farid Jalabuddin, who led police to Aisyah at a hotel near the airport.

Huong and Aisyah have told authorities that they believed they were taking part in a prank for a television show. Aisyah told Indonesian officials that she was paid $90 to take part in a practical joke involving “baby oil.”

Before she found herself in police custody, Huong was a failed pop singer turned entertainment worker. Aisyah was reportedly an employee at a massage parlor. Both women have said that they were unaware that they were taking part in an assassination.

Malaysian authorities claim the two women knew what they were doing.

“We strongly believe it is a planned thing and that they have been trained to do that,” Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said at a press conference Wednesday. The women are suspected to have coated their hands with poison, rubbed their hands on the victim’s face, and then rushed to the restroom to wash their hands immediately after the attack. Malaysian authorities say that Huong and Aisyah played out the hit multiple times at local high-end shopping malls.

Police have also arrested a North Korean man – Ri Jong Chol. While his visa and employment documents indicated that he worked at a local herbal medicine firm, his employer said he never worked there. He reportedly worked in information technology, running illegal gambling and pornography websites. Ri’s exact role in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is unclear, but he is rumored to be a chemistry expert.

Ri’s wife tried to commit suicide by cutting her throat when the police came to take her husband away.

Authorities are also chasing four other North Korean suspects – Ri Ji-hyon, Hong Song-hac, O Jong-gil, and Ri Jae-nam, the suspected masterminds who met Huong and Aisyah before the hit. They fled the country immediately after the attack. Police are also investigating a fifth suspect, Ri Ji-u, who may still be in Malaysia.

Malaysian police have also issued an arrest warrant for North Korean diplomat Hyon Kwang-song, second secretary of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The North Korean embassy has stymied the investigation, and Hyon is believed to have sent the four North Korean operatives off at the airport. Police are also looking into the role of an employee with Air Koryo, North Korea’s airline.

The Murder Weapon:

Early South Korean reports suggested that the two female attackers used poison needles. Later reports indicated that the two assailants splashed a toxic liquid in the victim’s face. Other outlets reported that the women held a poison-soaked rag over his face. Police now believe that the two victims coated their hands with one of the deadliest chemical substances known to man and wiped it on Kim Jong-nam’s face.

Relying on information from preliminary lab analyses of swabs taken from the eyes and face of the deceased, Malaysian authorities revealed Friday that Kim Jong-nam was killed with a VX nerve agent, a chemical substance so deadly, its only known use is chemical warfare. VX, the scientific name for which is O-ethyl S-diisopropylaminomethyl methylphosphonothiolate, is a lethal nerve agent classified as a “weapon of mass destruction” by the United Nations. It was officially listed as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1997 and 2005.

As a an amber-colored oil that is both tasteless and odorless, VX is easily concealed and very hard to detect. It could easily have been brought into the country in a diplomatic pouch.

The nerve agent inhibits an enzyme essential for a functional nervous system. Symptoms, which include convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure, and, if the dose is large enough, death, start to appear almost instantly after a person comes into contact with the substance. It can be inhaled or applied directly to the skin.

Malaysian authorities believe the two women rubbed the substance on Kim’s face and then quickly ran to the bathroom, where they washed the substance off their hands before it could take effect. One of the suspects experienced mild nausea and vomiting.

VX, was invented in the 1950s by Ranaji Ghosh, a chemist working for Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain.

The U.S. and Russia are the only countries that have admitted being in possession of the deadly VX nerve agent; however, other countries, including North Korea, the lead suspect in this bizarre case, are believed to have access to the substance.

Although it has repeatedly denied such accusations, North Korea, which is not a party to United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention, is believed to have a chemical weapons program. “North Korea may possess between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of [chemical warfare] agents,” according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

“The South Korean government assesses that North Korea is able to produce most types of chemical weapons indigenously, although it must import some precursors to produce nerve agents, which it has done in the past. At maximum capacity, North Korea is estimated to be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons of [chemical weapons],” NTI reports, “Nerve agents such as Sarin and VX are thought be to be the focus of North Korean production.”

Kim Jong-nam was hit with a high dosage of VX, and his death was likely “very painful.”

The Motive:

Authorities have yet to determine why Kim Jong-nam was murdered, but Pyongyang definitely has motive.

In his will, Kim Jong-il urged “that Kim Jong-nam be left alone and not targeted or harassed by the regime,” but Kim Jong-un is believed to have felt threatened by his brother.

Kim Jong-nam, to a certain extent, was a reformer. He opposed third-generation hereditary succession and was an unambitious but outspoken critic of his younger brother’s reign of terror as a brutal dictator. Kim maintained close ties to his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, an advocate of economic reform and opening up. Kim was a proponent of a freer, more open North Korea, one able to interact with the international community.

Kim Jong-un had Jang Song-thaek executed shortly after he took power.

He also issued a standing order for the death of Kim Jong-nam, and an attempt was made on Kim’s life a few years ago by a North Korean spy. Kim begged his younger brother to spare his life. He previously told reporters that he felt like he was “living on borrowed time.”

Kim Jong-un has executed hundreds of people to consolidate his power. Observers believe that the murder of Kim Jong-nam may be the latest attempt to secure his position as supreme leader of North Korea.

The Fallout:

South Korea and certain U.S. officials have blamed North Korea for the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. The acting president of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-ahn, called the murder “an intolerable crime against humanity and terrorist act,” and a number of U.S. lawmakers are calling for the U.S. to add North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Pyongyang, however, vehemently denies involvement in the assassination, despite the fact that the majority of the suspects are of North Korean origin.

North Korea has demanded that all suspects, especially the “innocent females,” be released and that Malaysian authorities stop the investigation immediately.

Pyongyang objected to the autopsy and instructed Malaysia to turn the body over to Pyongyang authorities, which they refused to do without a DNA sample from an immediate relative. At one point in the investigation, intruders attempted to break into the morgue where Kim’s body is being held. Malaysian authorities have not yet released information pertaining to the intruders’ nationalities.

As Malaysia has repeatedly rejected North Korea’s demands, Pyongyang has been especially critical of its long-time partner. The state-run Korean Central News Agency accused Malaysia of engaging in “conspiratorial racket launched by the South Korean authorities.”

North Korea will “respond strongly to the moves of the hostile forces toward us with their intent to besmirch the image of our republic, by politicizing this incident,” North Korean Ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol explained previously.

Authorities have yet to confirm North Korea’s involvement or accuse Pyongyang of orchestrating the hit, but North Korea’s behavior during the course of the investigation and the evidence stacked against it do not look good for the reclusive regime.

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