As the Malaysian police pieces together the clues of last week’s dramatic assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s brother, in a press conference this morning officials said that the two women suspected in the fatal poisoning attack were trained to coat their hands with toxic chemicals, then wipe them on his face, and also announced they were seeking a North Korean diplomat in connection with the attack.
However, as the AP reports, the North Korean Embassy ridiculed the police account of Kim Jong Nam’s death, demanding the immediate release of the two “innocent women” and saying there was no way they could have poisoned him. It alleged the women daubed liquid on Kim “for a joke.”
If the toxins had been on their hands “then how is it possible that these female suspects could still be alive?” demanded a statement from North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Police say the women — one of them Indonesian, the other Vietnamese — washed their hands soon after poisoning Kim, the long-estranged half brother of the North Korean ruler.
Indeed, as CBS reported previously, experts routinely tasked with finding answers in poisoning cases say the events at Kuala Lumpur’s budget airline terminal are bizarre, but not impossible. They wonder: What substance could have been used to kill the victim so quickly without sickening the women who apparently deployed it, along with anyone else nearby? Difficult, they say, but doable.
As shown on Monday, the assassination – which was caught on tape – resembled a scene from the movie The International.
“It’s not an agent that could be cooked up in a hotel room. It’s going to take a lot of knowledge regarding the chemical in order to facilitate an attack like this,” said Bruce Goldberger, a leading toxicologist who heads the forensic medicine division at the University of Florida. He said a nerve gas or ricin, a deadly substance found in castor beans, could be possible. A strong opioid compound could also have been used, though that would likely have incapacitated the victim immediately.
“It would have to be cleverly designed in order to be applied in this fashion without hurting anyone else,” Goldberger said.
Earlier Wednesday, Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters that authorities are searching for two new North Korean suspects, 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.”
Meanwhile, the police said the substance used remains a mystery, but it was potent enough to kill Kim before he could even make it to the hospital.
“The more unusual, the more potent, the more volatile a poison is, the less likely it is to be detected,” said Olif Drummer, a toxicologist at Australia’s Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine who has spent 40 years in the field. Khalid said the women knew they were handling poisonous materials and “were warned to take precautions.” Surveillance footage showed both keeping their hands away from their bodies after the attack, he said, then going to restrooms to wash. Such details are unclear in video footage that has been released to media.
He said the women had practiced the attack at two Kuala Lumpur malls. “We strongly believe it is a planned thing and that they have been trained,” he told reporters.
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Meanwhile, another ongoing mystery is whether the assassination was coordinated by North 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, 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.
Khalid couldn’t confirm whether North Korea’s government was behind Kim’s death but added, “What is clear is that those involved are North Koreans.” He also said a heavily armed special police force was deployed to the morgue holding Kim Jong Nam’s body this week as a precaution because police have detected attempts to break into the morgue. He declined to give details.
Local media reported that a South Korean cameraman was detained briefly outside the morgue after he was found without any identification documents or passport. He was released after a colleague confirmed his identity.
The North Korean Embassy’s statement was aimed at getting at least a little bit of Pyongyang’s spin on international coverage of the killing. It attacked the credibility and fairness of the Malaysian investigation, which it has alleged is based on lies and biased presumptions and has been tainted by the influence of foreign governments. While that approach isn’t particularly persuasive without supporting evidence, it can nevertheless create some level of doubt over what local authorities have already found and preemptively cast doubt on whatever more concrete links to North Korea they may announce as their investigation progresses.
Police have already arrested four people in connection with the attack: a Malaysian, a North Korean and the two women. The Malaysian was to be freed Wednesday on bail, Khalid said. At least one of the women has said she was tricked into attacking Kim Jong Nam, believing she was taking part in a comedy prank TV show. Khalid rejected that claim, saying, “This is not just like shooting a movie.”
North Korea insisted the women were telling the truth, without revealing how it knew that. “The liquid they daubed for a joke is not a poison and … there is another cause of death,” the statement said.
Police are looking for another seven North Korean suspects in connection with the attack, including the two announced Wednesday. The embassy official and the airline employee are among three North Koreans believed to remain at large in Malaysia.
The four others are believed to have fled Kuala Lumpur shortly after the attack. Khalid said authorities believe they are back in Pyongyang, and that they provided the toxin. “That’s why we asked the North Korean Embassy to trace them and hand them over to us,” he said. He added 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 say 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 laboratory reports. Identifying specific poisons can be difficult, especially if a tiny amount was used. The case has perplexed leading forensic toxicologists who study murder by poison, and question how the two women could walk away unscathed after using such a deadly agent.
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.