KUALA LUMPUR — A North Korean man will be released from custody because of lack of evidence connecting him to the fatal nerve agent attack on Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s ruler, Malaysian officials said Thursday. In a major fallout from the assassination, Malaysia also announced it was scrapping visa-free travel for North Koreans.
Officials never said why they arrested Ri Jong Chol four days after Kim was attacked at Kuala Lumpur’s bustling airport. On Thursday, Malaysian Attorney General Mohamad Apandi Ali said Ri will be released and deported because he does not have valid travel documents.
The attack was caught on grainy security camera footage that showed two women smearing something on Kim’s face as he waited for a flight in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13. Malaysian officials say the substance was VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon.
Kim was dead within an hour as the fast-acting poison coursed through his body, authorities say. No bystanders reported falling ill.
The poisoning has unleashed a serious diplomatic battle between Malaysia and North Korea. While it isn’t one of Pyongyang’s key diplomatic partners, Malaysia has been one of the few places in the world where North Koreans could travel without a visa. As a result, for years, it’s been a quiet destination for Northerners looking for jobs, schools and business deals.
That could all begin to change in the wake of Kim’s death.
Zahid said the visa-free arrangement with North Korea will be scrapped from Monday due to national security. He also slammed the North Korean ambassador in Kuala Lumpur who accused Malaysia of “trying to conceal something” and “colluding with hostile forces.”
“We don’t want to make enemies, but if they had used Malaysia for their own agenda, they should not accuse Malaysia and tarnish our image on the international stage,” Zahid said. “We will act firmly to guarantee the safety of our people. Don’t ever use Malaysia as a base to do anything you like.”
The two female suspects caught in the security footage were charged with murder in a Malaysian court Wednesday. They face the mandatory death sentence if convicted. Both say they were duped into thinking they were taking part in a harmless prank.
“I understand but I am not guilty,” Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong told the court in English after the murder charge was read.
The other suspect, Indonesian Siti Aisyah, nodded as her translator told her, “You are accused of murdering a North Korean man at the departure hall” of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.