Woman with Vietnam passport held over North Korea assassination

The suspect was 'positively identifed from the CCTV footage at the airport and was alone at the the time of arrest', police said.

The woman arrested on Wednesday appeared on CCTV footage from Kuala Lumpur airport on the day of the assassination. Fazry Ismail / EPA
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KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysian police investigating the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother on Wednesday arrested a woman with a Vietnamese passport.

Doan Thi Huong, 28, was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport, where Kim Jong-nam, 45, the North Korean leader’s elder half-brother, was killed on Monday.

Jong-nam told medical workers he had been sprayed with a chemical toxin. He died on the way to hospital.

Security sources in Seoul believe Jong-nam was assassinated by two female agents of North Korea’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

The woman arrested on Wednesday appeared in CCTV images from the airport on Monday, wearing a white top with the letters “LOL” on the front.

She was “positively identified from the CCTV footage and was alone at the time of arrest”, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said.

As the police investigation continued, a row broke out over Jong-nam’s body. North Korean government officials in Malaysia objected to a postmortem examination, and demanded instead that the body be released to them. The Malaysian authorities refused.

Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has executed or purged a slew of high-level government officials in what the South Korean government has described as a “reign of terror”.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said on Wednesday that the North had been trying for five years to kill Jong-nam. He was an advocate of reform in the North, and once told a Japanese newspaper that he opposed his country’s dynastic power transfers.

NIS chief Lee Byung-ho gave a private briefing on Wednesday to members of the parliamentary intelligence committee in Seoul. He told them the North had first tried to assassinate Jong-nam in 2012, and in April of that year Jong-nam sent a letter to Mr Kim saying: “Please spare me and my family. We have nowhere to go. We know that the only way to escape is suicide.”

The assassination was more an indication of Mr Kim’s “paranoid personality” than a calculated move to remove a political threat, the spy chief said.

However, Seoul’s spy agency has a history of botching intelligence on North Korea and has long sought to portray the North’s leaders as mentally unstable.

Jong-nam, who used to be called the “Little General” and was once heir-apparent to his father Kim Jong-il, fell from grace in 2001 after a spectacular blunder.

He was embarrassingly detained at a Tokyo airport while trying to enter Japan to visit Disneyland on a false Dominican Republic passport, accompanied by two women and a child.

He and his family afterwards lived in virtual exile in Macau, Singapore and China.

Born from his father’s relationship with the actress Sung Hae-rim, Jong-nam was a computer enthusiast, a fluent Japanese speaker and a student in both Russia and Switzerland.

He lived in Pyongyang after finishing his overseas studies and was put in charge of overseeing information technology policy.

But the chubby eldest son of the supreme leader was already viewed as a political lightweight even before he fell out of favour.

He was close to his uncle Jang Song-thaek, once the North’s unofficial number two and political mentor of the current leader.

The passport he was carrying when he was killed gave his name as Kim Chol, born in Pyongyang on June 10, 1970.

Ken Gause, an analyst in Washington who has studied North Korea’s leadership for 30 years, said Kim Chol was a name that Kim Jong-nam often travelled under. He is believed to have been born on May 10, 1971.

While the most likely explanation for the assassination was that Mr Kim was removing a potential challenger to the leadership within his own family, he could also be sending a warning to North Korean officials to demonstrate the reach of the regime. It follows the defection last year of a senior diplomat from the North Korean embassy in London who has spoken of his despair at Mr Kim’s purges.

* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters