Image: Kim Jong Nam

Image: Kim Jong Nam

KUALA LUMPUR — In the latest twist in the suspected assassination of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Malaysian police say they are now hunting for four North Korean suspects.

Kim Jong Nam died on Monday after being assaulted at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where he was catching a flight to Macau. South Korean and U.S. officials have said he was assassinated by North Korean agents.

Malaysian police arrested a North Korean man on Friday in connection with the murder, and said Sunday during a press conference that they were looking for four more North Korean suspects.

The four North Koreans flew out of Malaysia, but police would not reveal the flight’s destination, just that they were coordinating with Interpol to track them down.

The police also said they are trying to get next-of-kin to come to Malaysia to assist with the investigation.

“I can confirm today that they (four North Korean suspects) have left our country the very same day the incident happen,” deputy inspector-general of police Noor Rashid Ismail said.

“The four suspects are holding normal passports, not diplomatic passports,” he said.

Image: Noor Rashid Ibrahim

Image: Noor Rashid Ibrahim

“Next plan is to get them. We of course have international cooperation especially with Interpol, bilateral involvement with the country involved, we will go through those avenues to get the people involved.”

Malaysian police said the cause of death was still not known and that they were waiting for pathology and toxicology tests after conducting a post-mortem.

A diplomatic spat between North Korea and Malaysia over the body has escalated. North Korea has said it would reject Malaysia’s autopsy report and accused Malaysia of “colluding with outside forces” — a veiled reference to rival South Korea.

The Malaysian police said they were trying to contact the next-of-kin of Kim Jong Nam. “The body must be identified. The most eligible to identify the body physically is the next of kin,” Noor Rashid said.

“We will verify again through scientific means, so it is very important for close family members to come forward to assist us in process of identification base on legal procedures under Malaysian law.”

The police are giving the next of kin two weeks to claim the body. South Korea’s intelligence agency told lawmakers in Seoul that Kim had been living with his second wife in the Chinese territory of Macau, under China’s protection.

Two female suspects, one an Indonesian and the other carrying Vietnamese travel documents, have also been arrested, while a Malaysian man has been detained.

Kim Jong Nam, who is believed to be in his mid-40s, was once considered a successor to the leadership. But he fell out of favor when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001. He said he wanted to visit Disneyland Tokyo — a symbol of the Westernization demonized by North Korea.

Since then he has been critical of the regime but experts never considered him a direct threat to his half-brother’s rule.

“Most North Koreans do not know of his existence and he ruled himself out as a political player long ago,” according to James Edward Hoare, an associate fellow and North Korea expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

In this sense, it appeared his death would have no immediate benefits for the regime.

“It is not just the manner of it, which is brutal, but it’s the fact that there’s no pay-off,” said Smith at the University of Central Lancashire.

It wouldn’t be the first time Kim Jong Un, a youthful dictator still in his 30s, had meted out pitiless punishment.

Since he came to power in 2011, he has executed several high-profile members of his government — as well as his uncle and aunt. In May 2015, South Korean intelligence officials said he ordered his defense minister to be blasted to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun as punishment for falling asleep at a meeting.

Here’s what else we know about the case so far:

  • Two women are alleged to have approached Kim in the airport while he was waiting for a flight, and used needles, spray or a chemical-soaked cloth to poison him before fleeing in a taxi. Kim managed to make it to a desk to ask for help but died before reaching the hospital.
  • Late Friday, Malaysian police arrested a North Korean man in connection with the death. They identified him as 46-year-old Ri Jong Chol.
  • That brought the total number of arrests to four.
  • In addition to the North Korean man, two women who are alleged to have carried out the attack — a 28-year-old with Vietnamese travel documents and a 25-year-old with Indonesian documents — have been arrested.
  • A 26-year-old Malaysian man, said by police to be the boyfriend of the Indonesian woman, has been arrested, as well.
  • The family of the Indonesian woman, Siti Aishah, says she thought she was going to Malaysia for a prank TV show on which she would surprise people by spraying them with perfume.