February 21, 2017 10:58
A North Korean arrested in connection with the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother Kim Jong-nam had been in Malaysia on a dodgy work visa since 2013.
The owner of Tombo Enterprise, a healthcare medication company that sponsored the visa, told reporters that Ri Jong-chol was not actually employed by the company but he "treated him as a businessman."
Sponsorship of work visas is common practice in several Southeast Asian countries to get around red tape.
Chong Ah Kow, the owner, told reporters he met Ri only five times since 2013, and his daughter always interpreted for him since he could not speak English. Chong described Ri as "polite and even-tempered."
One particular deal they discussed was importing North Korean health food and exporting Malaysian palm oil, but it fell through because they could not agree on the prices.
Chong showed reporters a text message Ri had sent earlier this month detailing expenses required to buy Malaysian palm oil. Ri was listed as an IT expert on Tombo's payroll but had no computer skills, Chong said. "I discovered he specialized in chemistry only after this incident."
Kim Jong-nam was killed when suspects sprayed an unknown poisonous liquid into his face at Kuala Lumpur International Airport last week, and there have been reports that Ri is a pharmaceutical chemist.
Tombo mostly imports health supplements from Hong Kong and employs only around a dozen workers. Chong said he helped about 10 other North Koreans get work visas in Malaysia out of "goodwill" and voiced distress at being the target of a police investigation.
Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported that Ri's role in the hit appears to have been to provide accommodation and transportation to the other North Korean operatives.
It added that Ri was not at the airport on the day of the assassination but contacted the other suspects.
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