Malaysian police have arrested two women in the death of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader who was reportedly poisoned this week by a pair of female assassins as he waited for a flight in Malaysia, police said Thursday.
The women were picked up separately Wednesday and early Thursday and were identified using CCTV footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where Kim Jong Nam suddenly fell ill Monday morning before he died on the way to the hospital.
The woman arrested Thursday was holding an Indonesian passport that identified her as 25-year-old Siti Aishah, a Malaysian police statement said.
The other suspect held Vietnamese travel documents bearing the name Doan Thi Huong, 28. Still photos of the CCTV video, confirmed as authentic by police, showed her in a skirt and long-sleeved white T-shirt with “LOL” emblazoned across the front.
There was no immediate way to determine if the IDs were genuine or if the women were believed to be the alleged assassins.
Investigators are trying to shed light on a death that set off set off waves of speculation over whether North Korea dispatched a hit squad to kill a man known for his drinking, gambling and complicated family life.
Medical workers completed an autopsy late Wednesday, but it was not immediately clear if or when Malaysia would release the findings publicly.
North Korea had objected to the autopsy but Malaysia went ahead with the procedure anyway as the North did not submit a formal protest, said Abdul Samah Mat, a senior Malaysian police official.
Kim Jong Nam, who was 45 or 46, 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.
According to two senior Malaysian government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case involves sensitive diplomacy, the elder Kim told medical workers before he died that he had been attacked with a chemical spray at the airport. 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.
Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has executed or purged a number of high-level government officials in what the South Korean government has described as a “reign of terror.”
South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said Wednesday that North Korea had been trying for five years to kill Kim Jong Nam. The NIS did not definitively say that North Korea was behind the killing, just that it was presumed to be a North Korean operation, according to lawmakers who briefed reporters about the closed-door meeting with the spy officials.
The NIS also cited a “genuine” attempt by North Korea to kill Kim Jong Nam in 2012, the lawmakers said. The NIS told them that Kim Jong Nam sent a letter to Kim Jong Un in April 2012, after the assassination attempt, begging for the lives of himself and his family.
The letter said: “I hope you cancel the order for the punishment of me and my family. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and we know that the only way to escape is committing suicide.”
Although Kim Jong Nam had been originally tipped by some outsiders as a possible successor to his late dictator father, Kim Jong Il, others thought that was unlikely because he lived outside the country, including recently in Macau.
He also frequented casinos, five-star hotels and traveled around Asia, with little say in North Korean affairs.
But his attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland reportedly soured North Korea’s leadership on his potential as a successor. Kim Jong Nam had said he had no political ambitions, although he was publicly critical of the North Korean regime and his half brother’s legitimacy in the past. In 2010, he was quoted in Japanese media as saying he opposed dynastic succession in North Korea.
Among Kim Jong Un’s executions and purges, the most spectacular was the 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, once considered the country’s second-most powerful man, for what the North alleged was treason.