KUALA LUMPUR — The women suspected of fatally poisoning a scion of North Korea’s ruling family were trained to coat their hands with toxic chemicals then wipe them on his face, police said Wednesday, announcing they were now seeking a North Korean diplomat in connection with the attack.
Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters that authorities are searching for two new North Korean suspects, including the second secretary of North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur and an employee of North Korea’s state-owned airline Air Koryo.
“We hope that the Korean embassy will cooperate with us, allow us to interview them and interview them quickly,” he said. “If not, we will compel them to come to us.”
Khalid said the women knew they were handling poisonous materials during the attack, which occurred in a departure area of Kuala Lumpur’s budget airport, and had practiced the attack multiple times.
“We strongly believe it is a planned thing and that they have been trained to do that. This is not just like shooting a movie,” he told reporters.
Khalid couldn’t confirm whether North Korea’s government was behind the Feb. 13 death of Kim Jong Nam, the long-estranged half brother of North Korea’s ruler, but added, “What is clear is that those involved are North Koreans.”
Police have already arrested four people in connection with the attack, including the two women. At least one of the women has claimed she was tricked into attacking Kim Jong Nam, believing she was taking part in a comedy prank TV show. One woman is Indonesian; the other is Vietnamese.
Police were already searching for five additional North Koreans in connection with the attack, though four are believed to have fled Kuala Lumpur shortly after the attack and are now believed to be back in Pyongyang.
Authorities believe those four provided the toxin. “That’s why we asked the North Korean Embassy to trace them and hand them over to us.” He said, though, that Malaysian authorities had received no help so far from North Korea.
Determining the cause of Kim Jong Nam’s death has proven difficult.
Malaysian authorities said Tuesday that Kim did not suffer a heart attack and had no puncture wounds, such as those a needle would have left, but they were still awaiting lab reports.
Identifying a specific poison can be challenging, especially if a minute amount was used and it did not penetrate fat cells in the victim’s tissue. If the toxin only entered the bloodstream, it could leave the body very quickly. And even if a substance is found, it would need to match the symptoms Kim Jong Nam experienced before death. The more unique the poison is, the harder it is to find. Highly sophisticated facilities, such as in Japan or at the FBI’s crime lab in the U.S., are among those that may be needed to discover unusual toxic substances.
The case has perplexed leading forensic toxicologists who study murder by poison. They say the airport attack is one of the most bizarre cases in the books, and question how the two women could walk away unscathed after deploying an agent potent enough to kill Kim Jong Nam before he could even make it to the hospital.
Khalid noted the two women “were warned to take precautions,” and said security camera footage showed them quickly walking to restrooms after the attack to wash their hands.
Kim had spent most of the past 15 years living in China and Southeast Asia. He is believed to have had at least three children with two women. No family members have come forward to claim the body.
The attack spiraled into diplomatic fury when Malaysia refused to hand over Kim’s corpse to North Korean diplomats after his death, and proceeded with an autopsy over the ambassador’s objections. The two nations have made a series of increasingly angry statements since then, with Malaysia insisting it is simply following its legal protocols, and North Korea accusing Malaysia of working in collusion with its enemy South Korea.
Seoul’s spy agency believes North Korea was behind the killing, but has produced no evidence.
Isolated North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regime. Kim Jong Nam was not known to be seeking political power; he was best known for his penchants for drinking, gambling and expensive restaurants. But his position as eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since it was founded could have made him appear to be a danger.
Kim Jong Nam, a heavyset man in his mid-40s, died soon after the attck en route to a hospital after suffering a seizure, officials say. He was at the airport to fly to Macau, where he had a home.