KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian authorities on Thursday announced the arrests of two more suspects in the death of the North Korean leader’s half brother, whose apparent assassination this week unleashed tales of spectacular intrigue: a pair of women assailants, a broad-daylight killing and a dictator-sibling out for blood.
But investigators were still piecing together details of the case, which hinges in part on speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dispatched a hit squad to kill his estranged half brother, who loved gambling and casinos and lived abroad for years, knowing he was a hunted man.
The three suspects – two women and a man – were picked up separately Wednesday and early Thursday. The women were identified using closed-circuit TV footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where Kim Jong Nam, who was 45 or 46, suddenly fell ill Monday morning.
He died on the way to the hospital, after telling medical workers at the airport that he had been sprayed with a chemical, said two senior Malaysian government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic issues involved.
Multiple South Korean media reports, citing unidentified sources, said two women believed to be North Korean agents killed him with some kind of poison before fleeing in a taxi.
One of the women suspects had Vietnamese travel documents and was picked up Wednesday at the budget terminal of the airport, the very place where the alleged attack took place. The other woman held an Indonesian passport and was arrested early Thursday.
Police said they were working to determine if the IDs were genuine. It was not immediately clear if the women, both in their 20s according to the IDs, were believed to be the alleged assassins.
A still photo of the airport CCTV video, confirmed as authentic by police, showed one of the suspects in T-shirt with “LOL” across the front.
News of the third arrest came Thursday afternoon. Police said they had detained a Malaysian man who was believed to be the boyfriend of the suspect carrying an Indonesian passport.
Medical workers also completed an autopsy on Kim Jong Nam, but the results have not been released. The findings could reveal whether he was actually was poisoned.
North Korea had objected to the autopsy but Malaysia went ahead with it anyway because the North did not submit a formal protest, said Abdul Samah Mat, a senior Malaysian police official.
On Thursday, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said security is a top priority for the government and the authorities had acted swiftly and efficiently.
Asked at a news conference why Malaysia failed to protect Kim Jong Nam, Zahid said: “What do you mean? Do we have to engage a bodyguard and usher him everywhere? No.”
Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials said they believed one suspect was from Indonesia, and had requested consular access to her.
Kim Jong Nam was estranged from his younger brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and had been living abroad for years. He reportedly fell out of favor when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport in 2001, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
He was the son of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s second leader, and Sung Hye Rim, an actress who analysts say was forced to divorce her first husband to live in secret with the future leader in 1970, a year before their son was born.
Analysts say Kim Jong Nam was educated in Geneva and Moscow in his early teens and became fluent in English, French and Russian. After Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong Nam complained that Kim Jong Un, his younger half brother and the country’s new leader, was failing to treat him with respect and send him enough money, according to Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
However, Kim Jong Nam refrained from openly criticizing the North and kept a low profile after Kim Jong Un executed his uncle and former protector Jang Song Thaek, once considered the country’s second-most powerful individual, in 2013.
Officials from South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, told lawmakers that Kim Jong Nam leaves behind two sons and a daughter with two women living in Beijing and Macau.
Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has executed or purged a number of high-level government officials.
The National Intelligence Service said that North Korea had been trying for five years to kill Kim Jong Nam. Kim Jong Nam sent a letter to Kim Jong Un in April 2012, begging for the lives of himself and his family.
“I hope you cancel the order for the punishment of me and my family,” the letter said, according to the NIS. “We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and we know that the only way to escape is committing suicide.”
By Eileen Ng | The Associated Press
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Tim Sullivan in New Delhi contributed to this report.