Pinpointing cause of death for North Korean leader’s half-brother may be hard

On Tuesday, armed men stood guard at the morgue holding the body of the assassinated Kim Jong-un, with officials denying reports the dead man’s son had arrived to claim the remains.

Powered by automated translation

KUALA LUMPUR // Determining whether poison killed the half brother of North Korea’s leader in a busy airport is proving difficult for Malaysian officials, who said on Tuesday that autopsy results have so far been inconclusive.

On Tuesday, armed men stood guard at the morgue holding the body of the assassinated Kim Jong-un, with officials denying reports the dead man’s son had arrived to claim the remains.

More than a week ago, Kim was approached by two women at a budget air terminal in Kuala Lumpur and apparently attacked in the face with an unknown substance. Kim did not suffer a heart attack and had no puncture wounds, such as those a needle would have left, director general of health Noor Hisham Abdullah said. He did not dismiss poison as a potential cause.

“We have to confirm with the lab report before we can make any conclusive remark,” he said, adding that medical specimens have been sent to experts for analysis.

Identifying a specific poison can be challenging, especially if a minute amount was used and it did not penetrate fat cells in the victim’s tissue. If the toxin only entered the bloodstream, it could leave the body very quickly. And even if a substance is found, it would need to match the symptoms Kim experienced before death. The more unique the poison is, the harder it is to find.

“Our lab, for example, traces the usual chemicals,” said Rahmat Awang, director of Malaysia’s National Poison Center in Penang, who said he had yet to receive any samples despite expecting their arrival two days ago. “If the substance involved is not something we often see, the likelihood is that we might not be able to detect it.”

The body of Kim has been at the centre of a diplomatic row between Pyongyang and Malaysia, after North Korea insisted it be returned and objected to an autopsy being performed.

But Malaysia rejected the request, saying the remains must stay in the morgue until a family member comes forward to identify them with a DNA sample.

No family member had yet come forward to claim the body, said Mr Abdullah, the director general of health.

On Monday night Kim’s son Kim Han-sol was due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur from Macau, local media and intelligence sources said, but he said “we’re still waiting for next of kin to come to us”.

Police have so far arrested four people carrying identity documents from North Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Those held include two women who were allegedly seen approaching Kim on February 13 as he stood in the departure hall.

One of the women, Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnamese from Nghia Binh, a largely Catholic farming village about 130km south of Hanoi. Her father, Doan Van Thanh, said on Tuesday he could not believe she would do such an “earthshaking” thing.

“She is my daughter and I understand her,” he said in his simply furnished home. “She was scared of rats and toads. She would not have dared to do such thing.”

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse