Kim Jong Nam's death: Body has no puncture wounds

Kim Jong Nam didn't have a heart attack and the medics who conducted his autopsy found no obvious puncture marks or wounds, a top Malaysian health official said Tuesday, compounding the mystery over the North Korean's death.

Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of Malaysia's Ministry of Health, addressed a packed room of journalists at the morgue where Kim's body is being held, saying that the cause of death won't be released until lab tests from the autopsy are completed.

No next of kin has come forward to claim the body, he said.

Authorities in South Korea believe that Kim, the older, estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was poisoned before he died on February 13. His death is being investigated as murder.

In an interview on Tuesday, North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho told CNN affiliate YTN that he wasn't surprised by the news, adding that Kim Jong Un could also kill him.

"Even if North Korea denies it, North Korean elites would 100% believe that the North is behind it, given how many executions have taken place so far under the North Korean regime," Thae said. "Even his uncle, Jang Sung Taek, was killed."

A South Korean think-tank affiliated with the country's intelligence agency (INSS) thinks at least 340 people have been ordered executed since Kim took power in December 2011.

Thae added that if Kim Jong Nam was killed under Kim Jong Un's orders, it would highlight the leader's paranoid state. "The existence of Kim Jong Nam is not really a threat to the North Korean regime," Thae said.

On Monday, security footage surfaced that appeared to show the assault on Kim Jong Nam shortly before his death.
When asked about reports that Kim had been poisoned, Abdullah reiterated that his department was waiting on lab results before making any conclusive statements.

Diplomatic fallout
Diplomatic relations between Malaysia and North Korea have been strained in recent days, culminating with Malaysia summoning Pyongyang's ambassador and recalling its representative to North Korea, according to a statement from Malaysia's Foreign Ministry.

The moves came after Pyongyang's ambassador, Kang Chol, accused Malaysia conspiring with "hostile forces" during the murder investigation.

He told reporters the investigation was being "politicized by Malaysia in collusion with South Korea."

On Saturday, China announced it was blocking all coal imports from North Korea, fueling speculation the decision was linked to the death of Kim Jong Nam, who had reportedly been living under Chinese protection in Macau and was an advocate of Chinese-style reforms in North Korea.

But a Chinese official said the decision was simply a step towards enforcing existing UN sanctions.

"This is a move of China fulfilling relevant stipulations in Resolution 2321, honoring its international obligations and acting in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations," China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, said in a press conference on Tuesday.

The suspects
Kim died February 13 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, where he was planning to catch a flight to the Chinese-controlled city of Macau.

He "felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind" and then started to feel dizzy, according to Selangor State Criminal Investigations Department Chief Fadzil Ahmat.

An ambulance was eventually called to take him to the hospital, but he died en route.

So far, police have arrested four suspects and looking for four more who were believed to have left Malaysia the day of the attack.

One of the people in custody told police she thought she was participating in a gag for a television show.


Kim Jong Nam Death: North Korea Could Lose a Rare Friend

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — North Korea doesn't have many friends. There's China, its closest ally, and Singapore, where the North Korean elite have long gone in search of investors and shipping contracts. There are neighbors like Russia, and other nations isolated by politics and sanctions, like Syria and Cuba.

Until recently there was also — sort of — Malaysia. While it isn't one of Pyongyang's key diplomatic partners, it is one of the few places in the world where North Koreans can travel without a visa. As a result, for years, it's been a quiet destination for Northerners looking for jobs, schools and business deals. Today, you can find North Koreans studying in Malaysian universities, working in Malaysian mines and managing computer systems for Malaysian companies.

"North Koreans can act freely in Malaysia," said Lee Jaehyon, an analyst with the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

But for how long?

Last week, a long-estranged member of the North Korean ruling family was apparently poisoned by a pair of female attackers as he walked through the budget terminal of the Kuala Lumpur airport. Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korea's ruler, died soon after as he was being taken to a hospital.

A diplomatic spat flared when Malaysian officials ordered an autopsy on the body, despite demands from North Korean diplomats that the corpse immediately be turned over to them.

Malaysian police also arrested one North Korean in connection with the attack, and publicly announced the names of four other Northerners it wants to question, but who had left the country soon after the attack.

"Malaysia is very embarrassed," Lee said. "This incident has caused significant damage to Malaysia, and its image of safety and political stability."

Malaysian officials, he said, were working to get past the incident as quickly as possible, fearing trouble for its tourism industry and its ability to attract foreign investment.

While officials insist they are following normal procedures with the investigation, the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, reacted with fury.

The two female suspects, he told reporters Monday, could be "fabricated ... to hide the true cause of death." A second autopsy was an "attempt to mangle again his body" and constituted human rights abuse, he said. Malaysian police "pinned the suspicion on us and targeted the investigation against it."

The entire investigation has been "politicized by Malaysia in collusion" with North Korea's bitter enemy, South Korea, he said.

Malaysia then responded with its own fury, with a foreign ministry statement saying the ambassador's allegations were "culled from delusions, lies and half-truths" and denying any collusion with Seoul.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the investigation had proceeded properly.

Malaysia has no reason to "want to do something that would paint North Koreans in a bad light," he told reporters. "But we will be objective and we expect them to understand that we apply the rule of law in Malaysia."

Experts remained unsure about the diplomatic fallout from the killing and the increasingly incendiary language.

In the short run things are clearly rocky. Malaysia has recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang "for consultations," and called in the North Korean ambassador to explain his comments about the investigation.

But it can be hard to parse the level of vitriol in North Korea's official statements, which often include tsunamis of angry accusations and casual threats of nuclear annihilation.

"The North Koreans have a long-standing tradition of diplomatic bluster," said Er-win Tan, a scholar at the University of Malaya who has studied North Korea. "They have a very deeply embedded siege mentality, so I wouldn't read too much into what North Korea is saying." And if the two countries were not best friends "prior to this episode, the ties were relatively good, driven mostly by economic and trade considerations."

Many observers note that North Korea has little space — diplomatically or economically — to drive away the few friends it has. While trade between North Korea and Malaysia totaled just $5.1 million in 2015, that's a serious number in a country that exported just $3.1 billion in goods in 2014, and imported just $3.9 billion.

Revealed: Kim Jong-nam was gripped by fear and paranoia, says friend

Kim Jong-nam spent his last few years highly paranoid, hiding from the regime run by his dictator half-brother while struggling with a sense of powerlessness over the fate of his homeland, according to people who knew him.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, a close friend and confidant of the man once heir to the North Korean dynasty talked about Kim’s open-minded views and personality that led to his exile – and possibly his death.

In several trips to Geneva over the past two years, the last one just a few months ago, Kim visited Anthony Sahakian, an old friend from his teenage years at a prestigious international school in the Swiss city.

During Kim’s visit, the former classmates would meet almost daily for a coffee, a cigarillo and a walk.

Known simply as “Lee” to Sahakian, he lived with the knowledge that his younger half-brother, Kim Jong-un, might see him as a threat to the autocratic rule he assumed after their father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011.

“We actually did discuss the regime, his half-brother, about things going on there. One thing I can say, he was never interested in power,” Sahakian, 44, said.

“He wanted out. He never had any ambitions to rule the country. He didn’t accept or appreciate what was going on there. He kept relations with the regime at arm’s length.”

Malaysian officials say two women, believed to be employed by North Korean agents, appear to have poisoned Kim Jong-nam a week ago while he waited for a flight from Kuala Lumpur to his home in Macau. He died in the ambulance.

On Tuesday, a health official told reporters that the cause of death had not yet been determined.

The autopsy showed no evidence of a heart attack or sign of puncture wounds on Kim’s body, the official said. Asked if there was any indication that Kim had been poisoned, the official said medical specimens had been forwarded to experts who can determine the cause of death. “We have to confirm with the lab report before we can make any conclusive remark,” he said.

Sahakian’s recollections of their wide-ranging conversations provide the most candid insight yet into the political views Kim Jong-nam held during his brother’s six-year rule, and the fears that his life could be cut short.

“He was afraid. It wasn’t an all-encompassing fear but he was paranoid. He was a politically important person. He was worried. Of course he was worried,” said Sahakian.

It is not clear why Kim Jong-nam, the first heir, was sidelined. His maternal aunt published a memoir after defecting saying Kim Jong-il was besotted with his first son, cooing over him as a baby.

But Kim Jong-nam’s grandfather, the “Great Leader” and founder of modern North Korea, Kim Il-sung, did not approve of the extramarital relationship between Kim Jong-il and the child’s mother, a local film actress.

Leaving North Korea
Kim Jong-nam was moved out of the country, to Russia and then Switzerland, where he learned French, Russian, German and English.

This is when Sahakian first met him, aged 12 or 13. He was introduced as the son of an ambassador even though his real father was back home being groomed for the leadership.

“At the time we had no idea what the difference between North and South Korea was,” Sahakian said. “He was a very jolly child, very friendly, very kind, very nice, very generous. Liked life at the time … spoilt obviously, but we all were somewhat spoilt. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

The only bizarre recollection Sahakian has is of his North Korean friend in a luxurious Mercedes-Benz 600, “driving it himself, which was a bit surprising because we were 15 at the time”.

By the time he returned home, Kim Jong-nam was an adult and a product of his European upbringing. According to his aunt’s memoirs, he was suffocated by the isolation in North Korea.

He fell further out of favour when he was caught sneaking into Japan on a fake Dominican Republic passport in 2001. After that, he lived in exile – in Macau, a Chinese territory near Hong Kong, where he and his wife had children, and also Singapore. He kept a house in Beijing, according to another friend.

Occasionally spotted in jeans and a T-shirt at airports or restaurants from Paris to Indonesia, Kim always smiled politely to reporters. Although he once made it clear to journalists that he had not “defected”, it was apparent that he was in exile – whether self-imposed or forced.

Possibly seeing a chance for reform as his father’s health waned, Kim Jong-nam spoke in early 2011 of his political views to Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist, months before Kim Jong-un was appointed “Supreme Leader”.

But when Gomi published the book in 2012, which included criticism of the hereditary transfer of power, Kim Jong-nam stayed silent – possibly fearful that his brother, now in power, would seek him out in a rage.

A year later, their uncle – the North’s former No 2 who was close to Kim Jong-nam – was executed for his “dirty political ambition,” kickstarting a series of purges from the newly installed Kim Jong-un.

Following that, Kim Jong-nam kept a very low profile, juggling his naturally outgoing character with a life-preserving need to avoid the spotlight.

“He was very sad about the situation in his country. And he really felt for his people. It added to the pressures on him because he couldn’t do anything about it,” Sahakian said.

The generals’ rule
Kim Jong-nam had deeply considered his role, or lack of one, in his home country, Sahakian said. He would tell his friend about a “gerontocracy” – rule by old people – of army generals who were “born under Stalin” and kept the nation submerged in isolationist and repressive rule.

His brother, he said, had become part of the monolithic system run by the much older generals around him. “I don’t think he meant his brother was controlled by them but definitely when everybody has a similar mindset, you live up to the mindset,” Sahakian said.

Kim Jong-nam, a thoughtful man who desired reform, felt powerless. Although he still had a claim to high office as the eldest son, he knew he did not have the “character or the will” to enter the ruthless world of North Korean politics, Sahakian said.

“You have to have ice in your veins to do that,” he said. “There would have to have been a lot of blood to change the system and I don’t think he was up for that.”

Quite simply, Kim was not a monster, Sahakian insisted. But nor was he the jet-setting, casino-addicted, womanising playboy that the media often depicts.

Part of the reason Sahakian agreed to speak out was to portray his friend as a “decent human being,” he said. “He might have gambled, he might have been caught drunk. He liked women but what’s wrong with that?”

King Jong-nam had told him he would not accept money from North Korea and lived off various business ventures in Europe. When he visited Geneva, he used Airbnb.

But living a normal life was hard. “You have to imagine the immense psychological pressure for somebody like that,” said Sahakian. “What’s your skillset as a dictator’s son? What do you do? Go work for Goldman Sachs? It wasn’t easy for him.”

His undesired status as a member of the ruling family of the world’s most isolated state meant Kim also had to call governments in advance of his arrival.

“What he mentioned to me is that he had to talk to people in order to travel,” said Sahakian. “They wouldn’t let him travel freely without some sort of debrief, I would imagine.”

Perhaps it was this, his international lifestyle and mingling with the wider world, that Pyongyang found so threatening.

Since Kim Jong-nam’s death, Sahakian has considered the different scenarios that led to his friend’s murder. He pauses on one theory in which a sycophantic general might have taken the initiative to kill him – a lurid surprise gift to the supreme leader.

“In the paranoia there, in order to please the king, maybe somebody went too far. For this, you have to ask his brother.”

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