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Hurdles ahead for apprehending North Koreans suspected in Kim Jong Nam assassination

Kim Ga Young  |  2017-03-01 11:40
Eight North Korean male nationals have been implicated in the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of ruler Kim Jong Un. It is believed that these individuals have either fled back to Pyongyang or are in hiding in the North Korean embassy, leaving limited legal recourse for the Malaysian police. 

At present, the Malaysian authorities are conducting a joint investigation with Interpol. If the suspects flee the country, Interpol can place them on a wanted list. Member nations are then obliged to coordinate with Interpol by sharing information about the suspects previous known movements. 

One issue is that North Korea is not a member of Interpol. It has been reported that the primary suspects (Ri Ji Hyon, Hong Song Hac, Oh Joong Gil, and Ri Jae Nam) left Malaysia on February 13 and transited separately through countries including Indonesia, Russia, and the Arab Emirates on their way home to North Korea. Even with the cooperation and assistance of Interpol, it will be virtually impossible to determine the whereabouts of these individuals inside their home country.    

Even if the Malaysian government formally requests the repatriation of the suspects, North Korea will likely reject the proposal. Although the two countries share a visa-free visitation agreement (indicating some degree of closeness), they have not signed a criminal extradition agreement. Relations between the two countries have ground to a halt as the incident proves to be a major source of contention.    

The Malaysian authorities did in fact request the repatriation of the four North Korean suspects on February 22. However, on the following day, the North Korean authorities responded by alleging that Kim Jong Nams assassination was a ploy concocted by Malaysia and South Korea. As the North Korean regime continues to even deny that the victim is in fact Kim Jong Nam, there is very little chance that it will cooperate with the investigation in a meaningful way.    

Malaysian authorities unable to arrest suspects hiding in the North Korean Embassy 

Two of the other suspects include a second secretary of the North Korean embassy named Hyon Kwang Song and an Air Koryo employee named Kim Uk Il. These two are thought to still be in Malaysia, but arresting them will prove difficult. Both are assumed to be hiding in the North Korean embassy. 

It is likely that Hyon Kwang Song will look to evade charges using the diplomatic immunity afforded to diplomats through the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The agreement indeed applies to individuals with Hyons title of second secretary. 

In a telephone call with Daily NK, international law expert Lee Kyu Chang noted, If diplomatic immunity is applied, the only legal recourse Malaysia will have is deportation. As long as Hyon does not voluntarily agree to cooperate with the investigation, it will be difficult to arrest him, even while he is in Malaysia. 

However, there is also the possibility that Hyon Kwang Songs diplomatic identification has been forged and that he is actually an espionage agent. According to the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the second secretary in the North Korean embassy was actually listed as Yu Yong Nam as of December 2016. 

Accordingly, the Malaysian authorities are likely to look further into the matter to determine whether Hyon is an espionage agent rather than a diplomat. However, in the event that Hyon is determined not to be an official diplomat, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations stipulates that the local authorities are not permitted to enter the embassy without the permission of the consulate or the embassy in question. That will make it difficult to arrest anyone, including Kim Uk Il, who may be hiding inside. 


The North Korean authorities are likely well aware of the obstacles that hinder judicial action against the suspects, and have also suggested conducting a joint investigation. The acceptance of such a joint investigation would likely enable the regime to further confuse and distort the facts. 

The Malaysian authorities have stated that "the investigation will continue until the absolute conclusion is reached. Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar added, The North Korean authorities have not yet indicated to what extent they will collaborate with the investigation. There will be no joint investigation with North Korea.    

As the Malaysian authorities continue their investigation, there is a high possibility that the North Korean authorities will continue to place diplomatic pressure on Malaysia by portraying the incident as a contrived plot. North Koreas Ambassador to Malaysia Kang Chol stated that the incident is a scheme being coordinated by South Korea and Malaysia. The statement has caused the Malaysian authorities significant consternation. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak summoned Ambassador Kang to remark on, the rudeness of the North Korean embassys position. Minister of Culture and Tourism Nazri Abdul Aziz called North Korea, a rogue nation. Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Hussein added, North Korea has crossed a line that should not have been crossed. 

Due to the incident, relations between Malaysia and North Korea are likely to deteriorate further. According to local media, the Malaysian authorities are currently considering deporting Ambassador Kang and declaring him a persona non grata. This is the strongest response possible that a host nation can pursue against a diplomat staying within the country. Some believe that the Malaysian authorities are also considering permanently closing their embassy in North Korea.  

It has also been suggested that the visa-free travel program between the two nations is at risk. Singapore suspended a similar program following North Koreas fourth nuclear test. 

In the midst of these events, the South Korean government is pursuing a policy to raise international awareness on the human rights violations occurring under the rule of Kim Jong Un. It is believed that the topic of Kim Jong Nams assassination will be raised in high-level discussions during the 34th meeting of the UNs Human Rights Council in Geneva. During this meeting, the possibility exists that the assassination will be labeled as an act of terrorism and a violation of human rights.    

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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