THE North Korean envoy to Malaysia has little or no choice but to obey Pyongyang’s suspicious assertions on the cloak-and-dagger murder of supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother.
Either that, or he is likely to face the firing squad upon his return to the reclusive state, a veteran Malaysian diplomat has said.
As the diplomatic rift deepens between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang over Kim Jong Nam’s death, Dennis Ignatius, who once served as a Malaysian envoy in Beijing and was tasked with maintaining relations with Pyongyang, said it was a possibility that Kang Chol could be executed as it was exactly what happened to his predecessor.
“If he does not appear to be spirited and meticulous in defending his regime, he may receive the same fate of the previous ambassador who was shot by a firing squad after being recalled from Kuala Lumpur,” Ignatius said, as quoted by Free Malaysia Today.
In early 2014, former North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, Jang Yong Chol, was sentenced to death by firing squad as part of a purge against all relatives of Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.
Song-thaek, who was the slain envoy’s uncle, was accused of attempting to usurp Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship and was killed in 2013 along with two of his sons.
Over the past few days, Kang Chol has been trading barbs with Malaysian authorities who he says “could not be trusted” in handling the high-profile case, insisting that North Korean investigators should be allowed to take part in the probe.
The Malaysian Foreign Ministry had dismissed Kang Chol’s allegations as baseless, while Prime Minister Najib Razak has called the envoy “diplomatically rude” for making the remarks. Earlier this week Malaysia recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang.
Kang Chol has made a string of strongly-worded statements and press statements since the death of Jong Nam, while North Korea has aggressively insisted that the deceased was not their leader’s half brother but a regular citizen travelling on a diplomatic passport.
When claiming the body last week, Kang Chol was adamant that there was no need for an autopsy to be performed. The Malaysian government, however, maintains that the body could only be released after a post-mortem and that the victim’s remains could only be released to the next-of-kin, as per the country’s laws.
Ignatius said the threat of the firing squad was why the current North Korean envoy to Kuala Lumpur was compelled to take on a drastic approach towards the Malaysian government.
“It’s hard to imagine him (Kang Chol) continuing his role (as envoy)… That is the danger that awaits North Korean diplomatic staff,” Ignatius, who had earlier called on the envoy to be expelled, said.
But if the pressure for Kang Chol to emerge “victorious” in the diplomatic zero-sum-game with the Malaysian government, and if an execution was impending, the envoy could defect from North Korea to spare both his and his family’s life.
In late January, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to London said the North Korean elite are outwardly expressing their discontent towards young leader Jong-un and his government as more outside information trickles into the isolated country.
Thae Yong-ho defected to South Korea in August last year and since December 2016 has been speaking to media and appearing on variety television shows to discuss his defection to Seoul and his life as a North Korean envoy.
“When Jong-un first came to power, I was hopeful that he would make reasonable and rational decisions to save North Korea from poverty, but I soon fell into despair watching him purging officials for no proper reasons,” Thae said during his first news conference
“Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent,” said Thae, who spoke in fluent, British-accented English.
“We have to spray gasoline on North Korea, and let the North Korean people set fire to it.”
Thae, 54, has said publicly that dissatisfaction with Jong-un prompted him to flee his post. Two university-age sons living with him and his wife in London also defected with him.
North and South Korea are technically still at war as their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North, which is subject to UN sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes, regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.
Thae is the most senior official to have fled North Korea and enter public life in the South since the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang Yop, the brains behind the North’s governing ideology, “Juche”, which combines Marxism and extreme nationalism.
Thae has said that more North Korean diplomats are waiting in Europe to defect to South Korea.
Jong Nam, 46, was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb 13, while preparing to board a flight to Macau, where he lived in exile with his family under the protection of Beijing.
South Korean and U.S. officials believe the killing was an assassination carried out by agents of the North.
Jong Nam had spoken out publicly against his family’s dynastic control of the isolated, nuclear-armed state.
Four suspects have been nabbed so far – Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 28, Indonesian Siti Aishah, 25, Malaysian Muhammad Farid Jalaluddin, 26, and North Korean Ri Jong Chol, 46.
Apart from Jong Chol, seven other North Koreans have been identified with suspected links to the case. Four of them – Hong Song Hac, 34, Ri Ji Hyon, 33, O Jong Gil, 55, and Ri Jae Nam, 57, – are said to be at large in Pyongyang, where they reportedly flew to the day of the murder.
Three others are wanted for questioning. On Wednesday, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar named a senior official who worked in North Korea’s embassy and a staffer at its state airline as among those wanted.
He said the official is 44-year-old Hyon Kwang Song, who held the rank of second secretary at the embassy.
The police chief also identified the Air Koryo staffer as Kim Uk Il, 37. He said both were in Malaysia, but gave no further details.
“They’ve been called in for assistance. We hope the embassy will cooperate with us and allow us to interview them quickly or else we will compel them to come to us,” Khalid told reporters at a news conference.
The final North Korean wanted for questioning is 30-year-old Ri Ji U, who is also believed to be in Malaysia.
Calls on Wednesday to the North Korean embassy for comment on the latest developments went unanswered.
Police have stepped up security at the morgue where Jong Nam’s body is being held after an attempted break-in earlier this week, Khalid said.
On the North Korean in custody, Jong Chol, police have not stated his role in the killing. He reportedly lived in Malaysia for three years without working at the company registered on his employment permit or receiving a salary.
The two female suspects, Vietnamese Thi Hoang and and Indonesian Siti Aishah are being held on suspicion that they were involved in carrying out the fatal assault on Jong Nam using a fast-acting poison.
The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur has demanded the release of three of the detained suspects – Jong Chol, Thi Hoang and Siti Aishah – saying they were “arrested unreasonably”.
Additional reporting by Reuters