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Unanswered questions in Kim Jong Nam's assassination

Kim Ga Young  |  2017-02-27 17:13
Although North Korea’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance (GBR) of North Korea is suspected to be the primary actor behind Kim Jong Nam's murder, a number of apparent flaws in the operation are raising questions. 

The choice of an international airport, in which extensive CCTV coverage exists, and the fact that suspects were arrested on-site is being labeled as all too clumsy to be the work of the GBR, which is notorious for meticulous planning. This has raised questions as to whether the outcome was due to a series of mistakes or a deliberate strategy.

◆ Why were the female suspects caught so easily?

The two female suspects, Doan Thi Huong (left) from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, who attacked Kim Jong Nam with VX were apprehended when they reappeared at the airport two and three days later, respectively, after the crime had occurred. They were immediately arrested by local police who were monitoring the crime scene. A testimony has stated that the suspects were staying in a nearby hotel.

Analysts’ opinions are divided as to whether their apprehension was a mistake or a premeditated strategy.

 "North Korea usually kills the assassins after exterminating the target so as to erase any culpability. The regime succeeded in murdering Kim Jong Nam by hiring these foreign women, but it failed to swiftly remove them from the crime scene. It was an obvious mistake,”  Yoo Dong Ryul, Director of Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy told Daily NK on February 22.

One North Korea expert who has investigated North Korea's operations in South Korea added, "The regime hires people from a third country to hide North Korea's involvement, but the fact that it failed to hide or evacuate the suspects just reveals its limited capabilities. It seems like the regime changed its operational method from terror (assassination) to contract murder, but the subsequent events after the crime show a lot of flaws in planning."

Some argue that the regime deliberately chose to expose the foreign suspects in order to avoid accusations toward North Korea. "In view of the fact that foreign people were recruited, it seems that the regime was attempting to reduce North Korea’s culpability. Therefore, the exposure of the female suspects may have been a planned strategy to show that the crime was not committed by North Korean agents,” Yoo stated.

There is also the possibility that the female suspects did not choose to escape quickly because they were unaware of the fact that they had committed murder. Both suspects testified during the investigation that they thought they were recruited for a practical joke to be broadcast as part of an entertainment program. 

However, the Malaysian police believe that it was a carefully planned crime considering the fact that the women disguised themselves before the crime including cutting their hair, and rushed to the toilet to wash their hands immediately following the attack.

◆ Why was Ri Jong Chol left behind? 

While four North Korean suspects fled to Pyongyang immediately after the crime, the fact that Ri Jong Chol was left behind alone is also attracting attention. Ri was arrested while hiding in an apartment near the airport with his wife and two children on February 17.

Some experts have suggested that North Korea's intention was to leave Ri behind to support its claim that it was not involved. "If Ri escaped or killed himself, it would support the accusation that North Korea was behind the incident, so the regime is probably using it as a strategy to feign innocence," one North Korea expert said on condition of anonymity.

"The reason why the regime was confident in Ri is because it believed there was no evidence linking him to espionage. Ri has not been trained as an assassin and seems to have only participated in the operation as a medical consultant."

"Ri Jong Chol came to Malaysia as a foreign worker, so if he had escaped as well, it would have strengthened the claims that North Korea was behind the crime. It seems likely that Ri’s mission is to deny North Korea's involvement while the primary individuals involved in the operation fled to Pyongyang," Yoo noted.

"However, North Korea's involvement was eventually revealed as it has been discovered that the suspects used a car registered in Lee's name to go to the airport. This must be seen as a mistake. Ri therefore appears to be an agent embedded locally, living in disguise."

◆ Why did they select an international airport? 

North Korea selected a busy international airport, in which there are hundreds of CCTV cameras. The scene of Kim Jong Nam's murder, as well as the faces of the suspects who fled back to North Korea were all clearly recorded.

A high-ranking North Korean defector who previously worked at the GBR for 25 years noted, "It is quite unusual for agents to commit a crime at a place where security is tight and armed police can appear at any time. The GBR may have deliberately used this strategy because the target was none other than Kim Jong Nam."

"Even if the agents could successfully assassinate Kim Jong Nam silently, his death is bound to draw suspicions toward North Korea. Therefore, the agents may have deliberately introduced flaws such as contract killing and a clumsy clean-up process to elicit doubts as to whether North Korea was responsible. It is unlikely that the GBR was unable to arrange for the suspects to escape." 

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

 
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2017.04.25
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