March 14, 2017 11:25 am JST

Flubbed response to Kim's murder puts Malaysia in tough spot

Government playing catch-up in probe on slain brother of North Korea leader

WATARU YOSHIDA, Nikkei staff writer

Journalists wait outside the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. © AP

SINGAPORE -- A month after the killing of the half brother of the North Korean leader, Malaysia remains far from solving the gruesome murder as multiple missteps, coupled with a slow initial response, undercut its investigation.

The good thing is that negotiations are continuing, Malaysian Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali told reporters on Monday, referring to North Korea's exit ban on Malaysian nationals.

Kim Jong Nam was murdered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13. Rather than focusing on by whom or why, Malaysia is now fretting over the safety of its citizens stranded in North Korea. Top officials from the two countries are discussing ways to end the diplomatic standoff.

Evidence suggests that North Korea was systematically involved with the killing, done with the highly toxic VX nerve agent inside a crowded airport. But the four suspected masterminds have since fled to Pyongyang.

The investigation faces numerous challenges due to a slow initial response by Malaysian authorities. They announced late on Feb. 14 that a North Korean man in his 40s had died at the airport, a day and a half after the incident. Efforts to track key suspects, who left Malaysia soon after Kim's death and traveled through various nations to Pyongyang, were delayed. The authorities did not confirm that VX was used until Feb. 24, at which point they searched the airport for toxic chemicals. But there was a more than 10-day period when travelers could have been exposed.

Police statements added to the confusion. The deputy chief at one point said that Kim's family would visit Malaysia shortly to provide a DNA sample. The police chief denied this the following day, blaming the media for false reporting. The police on Friday said they had confirmed the dead man was Kim without explaining how.

Malaysia also misread how the North would handle the situation. It expelled the North Korean ambassador in hopes of pressuring the reluctant North into handing over key suspects. But it also left staffers of its own embassy in North Korea and their families there, allowing the North to effectively hold them hostage.

From the start, those planning Kim's assassination chose Malaysia because of its lax border controls. A North Korean detained, then released, in connection to the murder had obtained a visa to Malaysia on a fake employment contract. Some reports say the four suspected masterminds were openly renting luxury apartments in Kuala Lumpur and making preparations to attack Kim.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Monday said that while his country has limited military assets, it could count on other countries if it does clash with North Korea, according to local reports. Making casual comments about a potential armed conflict seems problematic. But he may be right that greater cooperation from the international community is needed to uncover the truth behind Kim's killing.

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