Three North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half brother were flown home Friday, under a swap deal with Malaysia likely to be viewed in Pyongyang as a great result.
Under the terms of the swap, nine Malaysian nationals who had been trapped in North Korea for more than three weeks arrived back home early Friday – in exchange for the release to Pyongyang of Kim Jong Nam’s body, along with the men wanted for questioning over his death.
“It’s a win for North Korea,” Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at South Korea’s Troy University, told VICE News. The news was one of two major developments Friday likely to cheer the North Korean leadership, with Park Geun-hye, the ousted former president of arch-rival South Korea, arrested the same day on charges of bribery and other crimes.
The Malaysian contingent had been stranded in North Korea amid a protracted spat following the Feb. 13 killing of Kim Jong Nam – the North Korean leader’s estranged older half brother – at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. U.S. and South Korean officials say the murder, carried out using the highly toxic nerve agent VX, was an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents.
Malaysian authorities had sought to question eight North Koreans over the killing, five of whom had already returned home and the remaining three who were until recently holed up in the country’s embassy in Malaysia. Angered by Malaysia’s investigation, North Korea slapped a travel ban on Malaysians earlier this month, trapping three diplomats and six of their family in Pyongyang, while Malaysia responded in kind, stopping more than 300 North Korean nationals from leaving the country.
Malaysian police said they had taken statements from the three North Koreans who had been hiding in the embassy – named as embassy worker Hyon Kwang Song, North Korean state airline employee Kim Uk Il, and Ri Ji U – but there was no reason to hold them further.
“We have obtained whatever we want from them,” police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “They have assisted us and they have been allowed to leave.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak described the outcome as “successful,” and said he and his staff had “worked intensively behind the scenes” to resolve the issue.
“Many challenges were overcome to ensure the return of our fellow Malaysians,” he said, adding that his government was committed to justice and sovereignty and the police investigation would continue.
Two women – one Vietnamese and one Indonesian – have been charged with killing Kim, who died after the women were seen on airport surveillance cameras smearing a substance on his face as he waited to catch a flight. The women reportedly believed they were participating in a television prank.
Pinkston said that while North Korea could view both the assassination and removing its stranded nationals from Malaysia’s jurisdiction as a successful mission, the three men could still likely expect a rough reception at home.
“Maybe being caught is something the regime would view as an unforgivable mistake,” he posited.
Before the spat, Malaysia was one of the few countries with which the isolated regime in Pyongyang had close ties – a visa-free travel arrangement was even in place between both countries.
Razak claimed he did not plan to freeze ties with North Korea over the death, but said he hoped “they don’t create a case like this again.”
“It will harm the relationship between the two countries,” he said.
Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at Australian national university, said he did not expect relations between the countries to suffer in the long term – but suspected North Korea would now be more careful in its covert operations overseas.
Kim Jong Un is believed to have sought the killing of his half brother, who had been living in recent years in the Chinese enclave of Macau, to shore up his power.