Malaysian police arrested a woman Wednesday in connection with the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and one-time heir apparent to rule the hermit nation.
In a statement, police said the 28-year-old woman detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was carrying a Vietnamese passport with the name Doan Thi Huong.
"The suspect was positively identified from the CCTV footage at the airport at the time of arrest," Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said.
A surveillance image, released on the website of Malaysian newspaper The Star, showed a woman wearing a white long-sleeved top with “LOL” printed in large letters. The newspaper reported that police were looking for several more suspects involved in his death Monday.
The news of the arrest came after the chief of South Korea’s spy agency confirmed that Kim Jong Nam, 46, was murdered. National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Lee Byung Ho said Kim was killed with a poison, though it was still uncertain whether a needle or a chemical spray was used, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
In a meeting with Korea’s National Assembly, the spy chief also told Korean lawmakers that Pyongyang had been trying to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, who has been under Chinese protection, for the past five years.
Acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo Ahn told a meeting of security officials Wednesday: "If confirmed, the murder of Kim Jong Nam would be an example that shows the brutality and inhumane nature of the North Korean regime.”
Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat told Bernama, a Malaysian news site, that Kim Jong Nam was at the airport to catch a flight to Macau, China, when he was attacked.
"While waiting for the flight, a woman came from behind and covered his face with a cloth laced with a liquid," Fadzil said. "Following this, the man was seen struggling for help and managed to obtain the assistance of (an airport) receptionist as his eyes suffered burns as a result of the liquid. Moments later, he was sent to the Putrajaya Hospital, where he was confirmed dead.”
Kim Jong Nam, who was 46 according to a police report, was the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of current ruler Kim Jng Un, 33.
In 2001, he was arrested at Tokyo’s Narita Airport after trying to enter Japan on a forged passport from the Dominican Republic. He told police he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
After falling out of favor with his father, Kim Jong Nam lived in exile in Macau, a Chinese island known as a gambling mecca. In emails to the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun, he said the rift had grown because he insisted on reforms. "After I went back to North Korea following my education in Switzerland, I grew further apart from my father because I insisted on reform and market-opening and was eventually viewed with suspicion,” he wrote.
Kim Jong Nam also criticized North Korea’s dynastic succession and that he had no interest in running the country, which remains in the iron grip of his 33-year-old half-brother. It was widely speculated that he lived in fear for his life under Kim Jong Un's harsh regime, and there have been reports of other assassination attempts in the past.
It is the highest-profile North Korean death since Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was executed in December 2013.
Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said it is difficult to read anything into the timing of Monday's death, but that Kim Jong Nam had long been viewed as a potential threat by his half-brother.
“He was living overseas and was critical of the regime, and he was a potential figure around which any opposition could rally,” said Wit. “It’s pretty clear that if you’re an outspoken opponent of the North Korean regime who used to be part of the regime, that your life is in danger.”