Nine Malaysians freed by Pyongyang arrived home early Friday, after Kuala Lumpur agreed to send back the body of the assassinated half-brother of North Korea’s leader, ending a bitter feud between the two countries.
Kim Jong-nam was killed with the lethal nerve agent VX on February 13 at a Kuala Lumpur airport, triggering a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea, which expelled each other’s ambassadors and barred their citizens from leaving.
But a deal announced by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and confirmed by North Korean state media on Thursday said the two countries had lifted their respective travel bans, and Kuala Lumpur would send the body to North Korea.
The Malaysians, three embassy staff and six family members, including a small baby and three other children, landed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport before sunrise where they were met on the tarmac by Foreign Minister Anifah Aman.
There were emotional scenes at the airport as they were embraced by tearful relatives who had also gathered to meet them.
Mohamad Nor Azrin, counsellor of the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang, said that while they had not been threatened and were free to move around they were not allowed to leave.
“We were very concerned because we had done no wrong. But we had to keep our spirits up,” he said.
Najib, who had earlier declared the diplomatic crisis over, said on Twitter Friday: “Thank God, all nine Malaysians from Pyongyang have arrived safely in our homeland.”
Najib had earlier announced the body was being sent back “following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea.”
The prime minister did not specify who in the family had made the request. Kim’s wife and children, who were living in exile in the Chinese territory of Macau, staged a vanishing act after the murder and are believed to be in hiding.
On Friday, foreign minister Anifah confirmed the body was on its way back to North Korea after being kept in a hospital morgue in Kuala Lumpur for more than six weeks.
Chinese and Malaysian media reported it was put on board a Malaysian Airlines plane bound for Beijing at 7:39pm Thursday and an AFP photographer saw a North Korean embassy van and officials leaving Beijing airport early Friday morning.
South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Friday Kim’s body was expected to leave for Pyongyang on an Air Koryo flight as early as on Saturday.
The South has blamed Pyongyang for the Cold War-style killing, citing what they say was a standing order from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to murder his exiled and estranged half-brother.
But the North denies this and denounced Malaysia’s investigation into the death as an attempt to smear the secretive regime.
It had insisted that the man died of a heart attack and his body should be handed over to Pyongyang.
Body a ‘propaganda tool’
Analysts said the North Korean regime may use Kim’s body as a “propaganda tool.”
“They will likely use the body to claim they were not responsible and tell an alternative narrative,” said Bridget Welsh, an expert on Southeast Asian politics.
Pyongyang has refused to confirm the identity of the victim, who was carrying a North Korean passport bearing the name of Kim Chol when he was killed.
Malaysia however has officially confirmed his identity using DNA evidence.
There are fears Kim’s 21-year-old son, Kim Han-sol, could be targeted next.
Two women – one Vietnamese and one Indonesian – have been arrested and charged with the murder. Airport CCTV footage shows them approaching the 45-year-old victim and apparently smearing his face with a piece of cloth.
Malaysian investigators are also seeking seven North Korean suspects, four of whom left Malaysia on the day of the murder.
Interpol has issued an international arrest warrant for the four men and they were still on Interpol’s list of those wanted for murder as of Friday.
Japanese media on board the MH360 plane to Beijing said two of the three other suspects who Malaysian police said went into hiding at the North Korean embassy were on board the plane that carried the remains of Kim.
It was still unclear what happened to the third suspect.