Four North Korean suspects fled Malaysia immediately after Kim Jong-nam’s killing

Posted on : 2017-02-20 12:08 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Suspects had been staking out Kim Jong-nam for more than a year, and made contact three months ago with female suspects
 is brought by Malaysian police into an investigation room in Kuala Lumpur
is brought by Malaysian police into an investigation room in Kuala Lumpur

What was learned from the Malaysian police’s announcement on Feb. 19 of the first results of their investigation into the killing of Kim Jong-nam, 46, was that all four of the suspects who fled are North Korean nationals. The police also said that five suspects and witnesses, including the two North Korean nationals who are currently in custody, are all cooperating with the investigation. This raises the likelihood that the main ringleaders have all fled and that the remaining suspects took part without completely understanding what was happening and why. It appears that four North Korean nationals found people to commit the crime, arranged for them to kill Kim Jong-nam and then fled the country. 

A crime orchestrated by North Korea?

According to what the Malaysian police announced on Feb. 19, the key to the case are the four male suspects who fled. These individuals (identified on their passports at Ri Jae-nam, 57; Oh Jong-gil, 55; Hong Song-hak, 34; and Ri Ji-hyun, 32) entered Malaysia at intervals of a few days. Hong Song-hak was the first to arrive on Jan. 30, followed by Ri Jae-nam on Feb. 1, Ri Ji-hyun on Feb. 4 and Oh Jong-gil on Feb. 7. And then on Feb. 13, immediately after the crime, they all left the country simultaneously. The police also released photographs showing the faces of two unidentified suspects, whose appearance strongly suggests that they are North Korean nationals.

Ri Jong-chol, 47, who remained in Malaysia and was arrested on Feb. 17, arrived in the country in Aug. 2016, where he worked at an IT company and lived with his family. On Feb. 19, Malaysian newspaper the Star quoted sources as saying that Ri had majored in science and pharmacology at a North Korean university, from which he graduated in 2000.

Ri Jong-chol was living in the Dynasty Garden Condominium, an apartment in Jalan Klang Lama, an upper-middle class residential area in Kuala Lumpur, and paying between 1,500 and 2,000 ringgit (US$340-$450) a month in rent. At the time of his arrest, Ri was in possession of an i-Kad identification card, which is distributed to foreign workers in Malaysia.

The police said that Ri was cooperating with the investigation. In addition to these people, the police have also taken Ri Ji-woo, 30, a North Korean national, into custody for questioning as a witness. 

 a suspect in the killing of Kim Jong-nam
a suspect in the killing of Kim Jong-nam
A year of preparation?

According to reports in the Malaysian media, the suspects had been keeping tabs on Kim Jong-nam for more than a year. Quoting police sources, the New Straits Times, a Malaysian newspaper, said that the masterminds of the crime had been following his movements for over a year to determine his travel patterns. Kim Jong-nam had done business in IT, and he had frequently visited Malaysia between 2010 and 2013, when Jang Song-thaek’s (Kim Jong-un’s uncle by marriage, who was executed in 2013) nephew Jang Yong-chol was the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia. But shortly after Jang Yong-chol was recalled to North Korea and executed in 2013, Kim Jong-nam stopped visiting the country. Kim Jong-nam began visiting Malaysia again in 2015.

The suspects also appear to have chosen selected the method and location of the crime in advance. It‘s likely that the four suspects who fled immediately after the crime settled on Ri Jong-chol as the accomplice after deciding to use poison to assassinate Kim Jong-nam because of Ri’s background in chemistry and pharmacology. Local newspapers reported that Ri Jong-chol had made contact with the female suspects (Doan Thi Huong, 29, of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia) three months ago. After traveling together in Malaysia to establish rapport, Ri Jong-chol proposed that they use a hidden camera to shoot footage of random strangers. They even did a run-through of the shoot the day before the crime.

Ri Jong-chol
Ri Jong-chol
Accomplices thrown under the bus after their crime?

CCTV footage from the departures area of the second terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport from 8:59 am on Feb. 13, the time of the crime, show the male suspects leaving the scene after watching the crime from a restaurant called Bibik Heritage inside the airport, about 50 meters away from the scene of the crime, where they had been waiting since 7:30 am. After changing their clothes in the bathroom, the men departed the scene, leaving behind the women who had taken part in the crime.

“The crime was over in five seconds, and Huong‘s shock can be seen on the CCTV footage,” said a source with the police. “She looked very nervous, and she kept wiping her left hand,” recalled the manager of the Sky Star Hotel, which Huong reached shortly afterward.

The evening of the same day, Huong was captured leaving the hotel with a mask on. It’s very likely that she realized she had committed murder soon after the crime. It can also be surmised that a crowded airport was chosen as the scene of the crime to keep the female suspects from figuring out that they were part of a murder.

One remaining mystery is why the key four suspects would have departed without Ri Jong-chol, considering that his arrest would reveal that North Korea was behind the crime.

By Park Su-ji, staff reporter in Kuala Lumpur and Hwang Keum-bi, staff reporter

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