By Keita Ikeda and Takeo Miyazaki / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondents KUALA LUMPUR/SEOUL — The North Korean man arrested Friday by Malaysian police on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Kim Jong Nam is believed to be a member of North Korea’s foreign intelligence service, as it has a key operational base in the Southeast Asian nation, according to a South Korean government source.
“It’s highly likely that the man belongs to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the external intelligence organ of the North Korean People’s Army,” the source told The Yomiuri Shimbun on Saturday, referring to the man identified as Ri Jong Chol, 46. He was arrested in connection with the murder of Kim, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
The high-rise condominium building in which Ri is believed to have lived stands in an area where there are a number of reasonably priced eating and drinking establishments. It is about 10 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur.
“Many police officers came and surrounded the condominium,” said a 66-year-old resident of the condominium on Saturday.
The Malaysian newspaper Oriental Daily News said in its online edition that Ri had lived with his wife, son and daughter.
Ri had an identification card that the Malaysian government issues for immigrant workers. North Korean workers dispatched abroad by their government to obtain foreign currencies are not allowed to have their families accompany them. They are believed to work in poor environments, and their pay is often reduced unreasonably. Given these circumstances, Ri is apparently not a worker of this kind.
According to the South Korean government source, Malaysia has been a base of operations for agents of the Reconnaissance General Bureau as Malaysia, along with Singapore and Cambodia, has loose protections against North Korea. The agents can easily transfer to third nations via these countries.
There are also North Korean restaurants in Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia, and many North Korean workers dispatched abroad go to these nations.
Each disguised as having a job in a range of occupational fields, the agents are tasked with gathering information on diplomats and businesspeople from areas including Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe. Media reports say cyber-units of the Reconnaissance General Bureau have operational bases in these nations.
Some believe that someone coordinated the murder carried out by two women and four men.
The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in South Korea reported in its Saturday edition that Malaysian police authorities are investigating the case in the belief that a 58-year-old man from Pyongyang was involved behind the scenes, citing a source in Malaysia who is well informed about the Malaysian police.
The police have obtained information on the man’s passport and are trying to confirm if he belongs to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the newspaper said.