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(4th LD) N. Korean leader's half-brother killed in Malaysia

2017/02/15 01:55

(ATTN: UPDATES with Malaysian officials, State Department in para 3, 7, 9-10)

SEOUL, Feb. 14 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother has been killed in Malaysia, a government source said Tuesday, in what could be a high-profile assassination by Pyongyang agents.

Kim Jong-nam was assassinated on Monday in Malaysia, the source said without revealing any further details.

Malaysian police officials were quoted in news reports as saying that the 45-year-old Kim was sprayed with a chemical spray at a Kuala Lumpur airport and died while being taken to a hospital. He was waiting for a flight to Macau when the attack happened, the officials said.

South Korea's cable TV broadcaster TV Chosun also reported that Kim was killed at an airport in Malaysia after being attacked by two unidentified women with "poisoned needles." The suspects fled the scene and Malaysian police suspected North Korea was behind the killings.

Composite file photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and half-brother Kim Jong-nam. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Photo courtesy of JoongAng Sunday) (Yonhap) Composite file photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) and half-brother Kim Jong-nam. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Photo courtesy of JoongAng Sunday) (Yonhap)

Another source familiar with the case said agents of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea's spy agency, have carried out the assassination by taking advantage of a security loophole created between Kim's body guards and Malaysian police at the Malaysian airport.

He said Malaysian police have informed South Korea of the assassination.

Reuters also cited an unidentified U.S. government source saying that the U.S. government strongly believes that North Korean agents murdered Kim. The source was also quoted as saying U.S. authorities have not yet determined exactly how Kim Jong-nam was killed.

Acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn received a briefing from relevant security officials about the assassination, a government official said.

South Korea's presidential office said it had no plan to convene a National Security Council session as there is no unusual movement in North Korea.

Still, the South Korean government has yet to officially confirm the assassination. Repeated calls to South Korea's spy agency seeking comment went unanswered.

The BBC reported that Kim's body was undergoing an autopsy, citing a source close to the Malaysian prime minister's office.

The U.S. State Department said it is aware of the reports about Kim's death, but had no further comment.

"We refer you to the Malaysian authorities," a department spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency.

The assassination came as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been trying to consolidate his grip on power that he inherited upon the death of his father and long-time leader Kim Jong-il in 2011 amid growing international pressure over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

The North test-fired a new intermediate-range ballistic missile Sunday morning in its first provocation since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Kim Jong-nam -- the eldest son of late leader Kim Jong-il -- had voiced opposition to his father's power succession to Kim Jong-un. He was born from his father's nonmarital relationship with Sung Hae-rim, a South Korean-born actress who died in Moscow.

In 2010, Kim Jong-nam told Japan's TV Asahi that he is "against third-generation succession," although he said he hopes Kim Jong-un will do his best to improve the lives of North Koreans and that he stands ready to help from abroad.

South Korean experts on North Korean affairs reached a consensus that the assassination could not have occurred without the authorization and instruction of Kim Jong-un.

"The assassination is a clear reminder that Kim Jong-un's family members are not an exception to his a reign of terror," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

Kim Jong-nam had been living abroad for years after apparently falling out of favor with his father for attempting to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001.

Kim's case would mark the most high-profile death under the Kim Jong-un regime since the execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, the once-powerful uncle of the current leader.

In 1997, Lee Han-young, nephew of Sung Hae-rim, was shot at his apartment outside Seoul, 15 years after he defected to the capitalist South. Investigators suspected that Lee was the target of an assassination by North Korean agents.