Malaysia expels ‘rude’ North Korean ambassador over Kim Jong-nam assassination row
North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia has been ordered to leave the country by a deadline of 6pm Monday in a major break in diplomatic relations over the airport assassination of the half-brother of Pyongyang’s leader.
Malaysia said it expelled ambassador Kang Chol for refusing to apologise for his strong accusations over Malaysia’s handling of the investigation into the February 13 killing of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.
North Korea has not acknowledged the dead man’s identity but has repeatedly disparaged the murder investigation, accusing Malaysia of conniving with its enemies.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said a notice was sent to the North Korean Embassy about 6pm Saturday, declaring Chol persona non grata. The notice meant that Kang must leave the country within 48 hours.
Arch-rival South Korea has blamed the North for the murder, citing what they say was a standing order from leader Kim Jong-un to kill his exiled half-brother who may have been seen as a potential rival.
The diplomatic spat erupted last month when Malaysian police rejected North Korean diplomats’ demands to hand over Kim’s body.
Kang then claimed the investigation was politically motivated and said Kuala Lumpur was conspiring with “hostile forces”.
Malaysia had summoned Kang for a dressing-down over his accusation, with Prime Minister Najib Razak describing the ambassador’s statement as “totally uncalled for [and] diplomatically rude”.
Anifah said that no apology had come and none appeared forthcoming, and that North Korean Embassy officials also failed to turn up for a meeting on Saturday at the foreign ministry, so Malaysia decided to expel the ambassador.
“It should be made clear — Malaysia will react strongly against any insults made against it or any attempt to tarnish its reputation,” Anifah said.
The death of Kim Jong-nam has unleashed a diplomatic battle between Malaysia and North Korea. Authorities said Kim was killed within 20 minutes after two women smeared his face with VX, a banned nerve agent considered a weapon of mass destruction.
Kang’s expulsion came just days after Malaysia said it would scrap visa-free entry for North Koreans and expressed concern over the use of the nerve agent. Anifah had said this was an “indication of the government’s concern that Malaysia may have been used for illegal activities”.
Earlier Saturday, a North Korean chemist deported from Malaysia accused police of threatening to kill his family unless he confessed to killing Kim. Ri Jong-chol, who was released after police said there was insufficient evidence to charge him, spoke to reporters in Beijing while on his way to Pyongyang.
Ri said that he wasn’t at the airport the day Kim was killed, but that police accused him of being a mastermind and presented him with “fake evidence”.
He said they showed him a picture of his wife and two children, who were staying with him in Kuala Lumpur, and threatened to kill them.
“These men kept telling me to admit to the crime, and if not, my whole family would be killed, and you too won’t be safe. If you accept everything, you can live a good life in Malaysia,” Ri said. “This is when I realised that it was a trap ... they were plotting to tarnish my country’s reputation.”
Malaysia’s national police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said he would hold a news conference on Tuesday to respond to Ri’s comments.
Ri was detained four days after Kim died, but police never said what they believed his role in the attack was. Two women – one Indonesian, one Vietnamese – have been charged with murder in the case, although both reportedly say they were duped into thinking they were playing a harmless prank.
Malaysia is looking for seven other North Korean suspects, four of whom are believed to have left the country on the day of the killing. Three others, including an official at the North Korean Embassy and an employee of Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, are believed to still be in Malaysia.
On Friday, police issued an arrest warrant for the Air Koryo employee, Kim Uk-il, but didn’t say why he is a suspect. Police say he arrived in Malaysia on January 29, about two weeks before Kim was killed.
North Korea earlier had rejected Malaysia’s autopsy finding that VX killed Kim.
Ri Tong-il, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said he probably died of a heart attack because he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Watch: death of Kim Jong-nam sparks row between Malaysia and North Korea
Malaysia’s finding that VX killed Kim boosted speculation that North Korea orchestrated the attack. Experts say the oily poison was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory, and North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons, including VX.
Kim Jong-nam reportedly fell out of favour with his father, the late Kim Jong-il, in 2001, when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse