Footage from airport cameras purportedly showing the assault on the half-brother of the North Korean leader emerged on Monday as a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea escalated over the handling of a probe into the killing of Kim Jong Nam.
Malaysia recalled its envoy from Pyongyang and summoned North Korea’s ambassador in Kuala Lumpur to explain his accusations that Malaysian authorities were colluding “with external forces” over the investigation into the slaying of leader Kim Jung Un’s estranged half-brother.
Malaysian police are hunting four North Koreans who fled the country on the day of the attack, having already detained one North Korean man, a Vietnamese woman, an Indonesian woman, and a Malaysian man.
At least three of the wanted North Koreans caught an Emirates flight to Dubai from Jakarta late on the same day, an immigration office official in the Indonesian capital told Reuters. Malaysia’s Star newspaper reported that all four had returned to Pyongyang.
South Korean and US officials have said the killing was probably carried out by North Korean agents.
CCTV footage, released by Japanese broadcaster Fuji TV, purportedly showed Kim Jong Nam being assaulted in Kuala Lumpur International Airport by a woman, who is believed to have wiped a fast-acting poison on his face.
Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the video, and police officials were not immediately available for comment.
Malaysia’s determination to carry out an autopsy and refusal to hand over the body directly to North Korea prompted the North Korean ambassador to question the motives of Malaysian authorities in rare comments to the media on Friday.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry rejected the allegations in a statement announcing the withdrawal “for consultations” of its ambassador in North Korea and the summoning of the North Korean envoy in Kuala Lumpur to explain his remarks.
“In his press conference, the ambassador ... insinuated that ... the Malaysian Government had ‘something to conceal’. The ambassador also alleged that Malaysia was ‘colluding and playing into the gallery of external forces’,” it said.
The ministry said the body would be handed over to the next of kin, although none had come forward. Malaysia’s health minister said autopsy results could be released as early as Wednesday.
North Korea’s ‘getting bolder’
Acutely sensitive to events in its unpredictable and volatile neighbour, South Korea convened a meeting of its National Security Council on Monday. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn told the meeting that it was nearly certain that North Korea was behind the killing.
Kim Jong Nam, 46, who has been living in the Chinese territory of Macau under Beijing’s protection, had spoken out publicly against his family’s dynastic control of isolated, nuclear-armed North Korea.
“The murder carried out in public at an international airport of a third country is an unforgivable and inhumane criminal act and clearly demonstrates the recklessness and brutality of the North Korean regime that will spare no avenues when it comes to perpetuating itself,” Hwang said.
“As was seen in this case, the North Korean regime’s terrorism tactics are getting bolder so we must be more vigilant about the possibility of terror by the North Korean regime against our government and people,” he said.
The grainy CCTV images, which have been posted on several websites, showed Kim, wearing a light-coloured jacket and pants and with a backpack on one shoulder, heading for an automatic check-in counter in the airport departure hall.
A woman is seen approaching Kim from behind on the left and another - identified by Fuji as the Vietnamese woman, wearing dark pants and a white shirt - walks rapidly up behind him from his right, before what appears to be a scuffle takes place.
In footage taken from another angle the woman in the white shirt appears to lunge from behind and throw something over his head, locking her arms around him briefly.
As she quickly walks away, the second woman also moves off rapidly in another direction, although it was unclear what role she had in the assault.
Later footage showed the portly, balding middle-aged man stumbling, wiping his face, and seeking help from people while gesturing to his eyes before being escorted to a clinic.
Just as he enters the clinic his steps appear unsteady, and as he goes inside medical personnel appear to move urgently.
The mother of the detained Indonesian woman told Reuters that her daughter, Siti Aishah, had been duped into believing she was part of a TV show or advertisement.
According to Malaysian media reports, the Vietnamese suspect, Doan Thi Huong, told police she had been tricked into taking part in what she thought was a harmless practical joke.
Risking further isolation
The row with Malaysia over the investigation puts North Korea at risk of becoming even more isolated internationally.
Malaysia is among a dwindling number of Cold War-era friends with whom North Korea - which has 53 embassies and other foreign missions, according to South Korean government data - has managed to keep up ties.
There is also speculation that China’s patience with North Korea could be tested by the killing because Kim Jong Nam had been living in the Chinese-controlled territory of Macau, where he was headed when he was attacked.
Beijing said on Saturday it had suspended all imports of coal from the North. China is seen to be irritated by the North’s repeated aggressive behaviour, including two nuclear tests since the start of last year and a Feb. 12 intermediate-range ballistic missile shot among a series of missile tests.
Coal exports to China are a vital source of revenue for the impoverished North.