March 03, 2017 09:48
Malaysia on Thursday abruptly scrapped visa-free entry for North Koreans over the assassination of Kim Jong- nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the move was motivated by concerns for national security, according to the Bernama news agency.
On Feb. 20 Malaysia recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang. The North has infuriated Malaysians by denouncing the police investigation after four suspects fled to Pyongyang while two others remain holed up in the embassy.
Pyongyang sent a high-level delegation led by its deputy ambassador to the UN Ri Tong-il to press for the handover of Kim Jong-nam's body. Ri told reporters Kim died of "a heart attack" and that there was "no proof about the use of nerve agent VX," which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and has been identified as the poison that killed Kim.
Malaysian prosecutors said they will deport Ri Jong-chol, the only North Korean who was arrested as a suspect in the killing, to Pyongyang on Friday. Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali said there is "not enough evidence to prosecute him."
The scrapping of the visa waiver deals a severe blow to the North's espionage operations and attempts to earn hard currency in Southeast Asia.
There are about 500 to 1,000 North Koreans in Malaysia, most of them working at construction sites, mines or IT firms. The North also frequently dispatches spies and hackers to Malaysia, where they are involved in a range of illegal activities.
Operatives probably include one of the suspects holed up at the embassy, Kim Uk-il, a staffer in the Kuala Lumpur office of North Korean flag carrier Air Koryo. "Why does Air Koryo, which offers no flights to Malaysia, have an office in Kuala Lumpur?" a diplomatic source said. "Kim Uk-il must be an operative helping the North's illegal activities overseas."
South Korea and the U.S. targeted Air Koryo with sanctions in December last year. The North earns a considerable amount of hard currency by operating illegal online gambling sites in Southeast Asia.
A North Korean defector who used to be a spy pointed out that legitimate North Korean expat workers are always forced to live in groups so they can be monitored by the regime. But Ri Jong-chol, the suspect who is being deported, lived alone, "so he must be a spy disguised as an IT worker."
Whether Malaysia will sever ties with the North depends on the progress in the investigation. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1973.
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