Why Malaysia is refusing to return Kim Jong Nam’s body to North Korea

The assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother provides an unusual perspective into North Korea's internal politics.

Edgar Su/Reuters
North Korea embassy officials leave the morgue at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital where Kim Jong Nam's body is being held for autopsy, Feb. 15, 2017.

The investigation into the death of Kim Jong Nam is still ongoing. And now, the fate of the deceased man’s body is getting a geopolitical edge.

Malaysian authorities said Friday that they would conduct a second autopsy on the body of Mr. Kim, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after the first one yielded no definitive conclusions about the cause of his death.

Malaysian police also say they will not return the body to North Korea until a family member claims the body – with a matching DNA sample to prove the relationship.

“After all the police and medical procedures are completed, we may release the body to the next of kin through the embassy,” said Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, describing the process as normal procedure, according to the Associated Press.

The request for the genetic code of the ruling family has provoked a furious response from North Korea, shining a light on the geopolitical implications of the incident.

On Friday, North Korea demanded Malaysia return the body immediately and reiterated its opposition to the autopsies in unusually strident terms, considering the relatively friendly terms between the two nations. 

North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, said the postmortem had been carried out “without our permission and witnessing” and vowed to “categorically reject the result,” according to a transcript of his statements published by Malaysian media.

Kim, he said, had been traveling with a diplomatic passport and was under consular protection. Ambassador Kang also accused Malaysia of working with North Korea’s enemies, saying it had submitted the proper paperwork to ensure the release of Kim’s body to Pyongyang but did not receive an answer. 

“This strongly suggests that the Malaysian side is trying to conceal something and deceive us and that they are colluding with the hostile forces who are desperate to harm us,” he said. “We will respond strongly to the moves of the hostile forces towards us with their intent to besmirch the image of our republic by politicizing this incident.”

The scuffle over postmortem procedure came just before Malaysian authorities arrested North Korean citizen Ri Jong Chol at a Kuala Lumpur apartment, making him the fourth person to be detained in connection with the murder. Police say that Kim was killed by two women who used a needle and a cloth to poison him at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, according to the New York Times.

Officials in the United States and South Korea say the murder was itself of a political nature, suggesting North Korean agents were responsible for it. 

"According to South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, there was a long-standing order from the North Korean leadership to eliminate this family member. It is believed that there was an attempt in 2012 to kill him as well but failed,” wrote Dr. Rajaram Panda, an Asia-Pacific security expert and visiting professor at Japan’s Reitaku University, in the Eurasia Review. 

"Kim was living in exile for many years and kept a low profile. He never publicly expressed interest in challenging his half-brother for North Korea’s leadership, though he was critical of the regime. He was opposed to dynastic style of the political rule and that may have been perceived as threat."

North Korea’s relationship with another key neighbor, China, is also coming under strain due largely to its repeated nuclear-weapons testing. On Saturday, China announced that it would ban all imports of North Korean coal through the end of the year, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

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