by M JEGATHESAN / with Park Chan-Kyong in Seoul
Malaysian police hunted the killers of the half-brother of North Korea's leader Wednesday as they tried to unravel the Cold War-style assassination which the South said was carried out by two female agents.
Pathologists in Kuala Lumpur were examining the body of Kim Jong-Nam for clues to how he died, as South Korea's spy chief told lawmakers he "strongly suspected" he had been poisoned.
CCTV images from the airport that emerged in Malaysian media of one of the suspects showed an Asian woman wearing a white top with the letters "LOL" emblazoned on the front.
The assassination, which analysts said could have been ordered over reports the dead man was readying to defect, illustrates the "brutal and inhumane" nature of the isolated regime, South Korea said.
If proved, the killing would be the highest-profile death on young leader Kim Jong-Un's watch since the 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, in a country with a long record of meting out brutal deaths.
South Korea's spy chief Lee Byung-Ho said the two women struck on Monday morning as Kim was readying to board a flight to Macau where he has spent many years in exile.
Malaysian police said Kim, a portly 45-year-old, was walking through the departure hall at Kuala Lumpur International Airport when he was attacked.
"He told the receptionist... someone had grabbed his face from behind and splashed some liquid on him," Selangor state's criminal investigation chief Fadzil Ahmat was reported as saying by Malaysia's The Star newspaper.
"He asked for help and was immediately sent to the airport’s clinic. At this point, he was experiencing headache and was on the verge of passing out,” said Fadzil.
"At the clinic, the victim experienced a mild seizure. He was put into an ambulance and was being taken to the Putrajaya Hospital when he was pronounced dead," he said.
The head of Kuala Lumpur Hospital’s forensics department, Mohamad Shah Mahmood, was taking part in the autopsy, according to an aide who asked not to be identified because they were not authorised to speak for the department.
Outside the forensics department, a black Jaguar sedan bearing the North Korean flag pulled up on Wednesday afternoon, followed by another vehicle.
Two men who emerged from the vehicles declined to speak to waiting media as they entered the building.
“The investigation is in progress. It covers everything including hunting down the possible suspects,” Abdul Samah Mat, chief of police of Selangor state which surrounds the capital, told AFP.
- Fall from grace -
Kim had at one time been set to assume the leadership of his isolated country, but fell out of favour after an embarrassing attempt to get into Japan on a fake passport in 2001.
He has since lived in exile, mostly in the gambling haven of Macau, but he has also been spotted in other Asian countries and is believed to have enjoyed some protection from Chinese security forces.
Quizzed about the killing during a regular press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of the reports.
"According to our understanding, the incident took place in Malaysia and the Malaysian side is investigating this issue. We are following the developments," he said.
Seoul blasted the suspected assassination, with acting president Hwang Kyo-Ahn saying it showed "the brutality and inhumane nature of the North Korean regime".
In Pyongyang, celebrations began for Thursday's anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-Il, Jong-Nam's father, with no mention of the killing.
Around 3,000 uniformed government officials and women in traditional dresses gathered for an ice skating gala featuring North Korean and foreign skaters. Banners proclaiming "peace", "independence" and "friendship" hung in the venue.
Jong-Un has been trying to strengthen his grip on power in the face of growing international pressure over his country's nuclear and missile programmes, and regular reports have emerged on purges and executions.
Jong-Nam, known as an advocate of reform in the North, once told Japanese reporters that he opposed his country's dynastic system.
In a 2012 interview from his school in Bosnia, a 17-year-old Kim Han-Sol, Jong-Nam's son, said his father had been passed over for succession because he "was not really interested in politics".
"I don't really know why he became a dictator," Kim said of his uncle Kim Jong-Un. "It was between him and my grandfather."
It emerged Wednesday that Jong-Nam had pleaded with his younger brother for his life to be spared after an earlier assassination attempt.
"Jong-Nam in April 2012 sent a letter to Jong-Un saying 'Please spare me and my family,'" Kim Byung-Kee, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, told reporters.
"It also said 'We have nowhere to go... we know that the only way to escape is suicide'," he said, after a closed-door briefing by Seoul's spy chief.
Cheong Seong-Chang of the independent Sejong Institute in Seoul said the assassination was "unthinkable without a direct order or approval from Kim Jong-Un himself".
His killing was likely motivated by a recent news report that Kim Jong-Nam had sought to defect to the EU, the US or South Korea as far back as in 2012, he said.