One North Korean freed while another sought in nerve-agent killing

By Eileen Ng, AP

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian police on Friday released the only North Korean detained in the killing of the half brother of North Korea’s leader, and later said an arrest warrant had been issued for another whose whereabouts are unknown.

Malaysia is looking for seven North Korean suspects in all, four of whom are believed to have left the country Feb. 13, the day Kim Jong Nam died. The only people in custody are two women — one Indonesian, one Vietnamese — accused of smearing his face with the banned nerve agent VX.

Ri Jong Chol, who had been detained since Feb. 17, was handed over to immigration officials for deportation. Police never said what they thought his role was in the attack, but national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar confirmed Friday that Ri was released due to a lack of evidence against him.

Four of the North Korean suspects police seek are believed to have left Malaysia the day Kim, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was killed. One of the suspects believed to still be in Malaysia is an official at the North Korean Embassy.

Khalid said the arrest warrant issued Friday was for 37-year-old Kim Uk Il, who works for Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier. Police say he arrived in Malaysia on Jan. 29, about two weeks before Kim Jong Nam was attacked.

Malaysian authorities have not said why they want to question Kim Uk Il, but they believe he also is still in Malaysia.

A statement Friday from Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry ramped up the pressure on North Korea, saying it was “greatly concerned” about the use of the nerve agent.

“Its use at a public place could have endangered the general public,” the ministry said.

Malaysia has not directly accused North Korea of being behind the killing, but the statement came hours after a North Korean envoy rejected a Malaysian autopsy finding that VX nerve agent killed Kim, saying the man probably died of a heart attack because he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Khalid, the national police chief, brushed off the North Korean envoy’s claim of a heart attack.

“We have our experts who are qualified to determine the cause of death of Kim Chol. Our investigations, supported by expert reports, confirmed that Kim Chol was murdered. North Korea can say what they like but the facts remain,” Khalid told The Associated Press.

Malaysian police said the female suspects had been trained to go immediately to the bathroom and wash their hands after attacking Kim. The police said the four North Korean suspects who left the country the day of the killing put the VX liquid on the women’s hands.

Police can’t confirm whether the two women may have been given antidotes before the attack. An antidote, atropine, can be injected after exposure and is carried by medics in war zones where weapons of mass destruction are suspected.