Three North Koreans wanted for questioning were interviewed by police
Four Malaysian diplomats and their families returned home from Pyongyang Friday
Relations between Malaysia and North Korea soured since Kim Jong Nam's murder
Three North Koreans who spent weeks hiding in the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur have left Malaysia, police said Friday.
The trio had been wanted for questioning in connection with the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam.
Kim Jong Nam was murdered February 13 when two women wiped his face with the highly toxic VX nerve agent at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia blamed North Korea for his death, but Pyongyang has strongly denied any involvement.
On Friday, Royal Malaysia Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters police took statements from the three men at the North Korean embassy before their departure.
Though Bakar would not name the three that were interviewed, it was previously revealed that Hyon Kwang Song, a second secretary at the embassy, and Kim Uk Il, an employee of North Korea’s national airline, were both hiding at the embassy.
Ri Ji U, a 30-year-old North Korean whose employment was not disclosed by Malaysian police, was believed to be the third individual holed up there, a Malaysian government official told CNN.
Bakar said the men’s freedom was not tied to an agreement which secured the release of nine Malaysians in Pyongyang and sent Kim Jong Nam’s body back to North Korea.
When asked if they were cleared of wrongdoing, Bakar only stated the men were no longer needed for the investigation, which is ongoing.
They had been wanted for questioning after being seen on security camera footage at the airport on the day of Kim’s death, he said.
The investigation soured relations between Malaysia and North Korea, which previously had cordial ties. North Korean authorities were quick to attack the Malaysian investigation and ignored their requests for an immediate release of the body.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak described the ambassador’s statement as “totally uncalled for.”
Suggestions of North Korea’s involvement also lowered the country’s already paltry standing on the world stage, analysts said, and reminded the globe about the risks of dealing with Pyongyang.
“This is not the first time North Korea has engaged in illicit activities, including kidnapping and murder, abroad,” said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at Troy University in Seoul.
“If you maintain a relationship with North Korea that includes the presence of many North Koreans in your country, you run certain risks.”
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Arrest warrants and Interpol red notices have been issued for four North Korean suspects, who Malaysian police believe are back in Pyongyang.
Bakar said Friday Malaysia is asking North Korea to hand them over.
The only people to be charged in relation to the case are two women.
Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian national, and Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam are accused of wiping Kim’s face with VX, a claim that closed-circuit security cameras appears to verify.
The women say they were told they were taking part in a prank TV show, a claim Malaysian police strongly deny.
A win for Pyongyang?
North Korea appeared to have the upper hand in the talks to secure the return of Kim’s body and the three nationals inside the embassy, experts said.
Malaysia’s strategy was to secure its citizens at all costs, giving them little wiggle room in negotiations, Yang Razali, a Malaysian politics expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told CNN in an email.
For Pyongyang, the result of the negotiation is likely being considered a win.
“(North Korea) got all that it wanted – the body, especially the release and safe passage of the North Korean(s),” named in relation to the killing, Razali said.
“If anything, it appears that Kim Jong Un has given the world a foretaste of his hardball diplomacy in future situations of tension and conflict.”
Journalist Salhan K. Ahmad contributed to this report.