For over three years, Kim murder suspect lived mystery life in Malaysia

Ri Jong Chol, a North Korean arrested in the probe into last week's murder of the half-brother of the isolated state's leader, lived in Malaysia for more than three years without working at the company registered on his employment permit or receiving a salary.

Ri, 47, had a Malaysian work visa that showed he was an employee of Tombo Enterprise. But the owner of the company said he never worked a day there or drew a salary from the small herbal medicine firm.

Chong Ah Kow said he facilitated Ri's working visa by stating in supporting documents that he was a product development manager in the company's IT department earning 5,500 ringgit ($1,230) per month. The visa was renewed once, he said, in June 2016.

"It was just a formality, just documents, I never paid him,"Chong, a Malaysian, said in an interview. "I don't know how he survives here. I don't know how he gets money."

Read also: North Korean chemist was in anti-cancer business

Chong, a frequent traveller to North Korea, said he was just trying to "help out" Ri. He has been interviewed by police and told Reuters he was ready to face any consequences from submitting false information to the government.

Chong, who has remained friends with Ri, said the North Korean lived with his wife and two children in Kuala Lumpur.

Reuters could not ascertain if Ri had any other employment or source of income. Police could not be reached for comment to explain how Ri supported his family in Malaysia.

HELP UNIVERSITY

Ri has been arrested as a key suspect in the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. Police have not specified what role he may have played in last week's brazen killing at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Reuters was unable to find out whether Ri has a lawyer or to contact his wife or his daughter. Efforts to contact the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur were also unsuccessful.

Chong said Ri rented an apartment in Kuchai Lama, a middle-class Kuala Lumpur suburb. Three-bedroom apartments in the neighbourhood typically rent for about 1,500-2,000 ringgit (S$479 to S$638) per month, according to property websites.

Ri's daughter studies at HELP University, a fee-paying private college in a western Kuala Lumpur suburb that bestowed a honorary doctorate in economics on Kim Jong Un in 2013 for his"untiring efforts for the education of the country and the well-being of the people".

The university has confirmed she is a student there.

Chong said he and Ri met in 2013 when the North Korean came to him in Kuala Lumpur, and said he was related to the inventor of a mushroom extract with anti-cancer effects. Chong said he has visited North Korea about 10 times and admires the country for its culture.

"They have great shows," Chong said. "(Ri was a) soft-spoken, courteous, humble man - just like other North Koreans."

Half-brother of N Korean leader assassinated in Malaysia

  • Doan Thi Huong, 28, from Vietnam, was surrounded by a heavy police presence as they were charged in a Kuala Lumpur court over the killing.
  • Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, was surrounded by a heavy police presence as they were charged in a Kuala Lumpur court over the killing.
  • Huong, also dressed casually, then heard the charge in Vietnamese.
  • Siti, wearing a red T-shirt, was brought in first to hear the murder charge read out before being taken away.
  • The handcuffed women were both told they faced the death penalty if found guilty.
  • Neither woman was asked to enter a plea and their trial is not expected to begin for several months.
  • Four suspects in the Kim Jong Nam murder: Malaysian Muhammad Farid Bin Jalaluddin (top L), Doan Thi Huong (top R) of Vietnam, North Korean Ri Jong Chol (bottom L) and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia (bottom R).
  • : A still image from a footage broadcast by Chinese state media which they say is believed to show the second woman (wearing yellow top) suspected of involvement in the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam.
  • Mystery woman: A CCTV screen grab showing a woman outside what looked like the airport, was circulated briefly after news broke last night that the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been killed in Malaysia. The picture fits the description of one of the two women believed to be North Korean spies, who had poisoned Kim Jong-nam during a brazen attack at KLIA2.
  • CCTV cameras at KLIA2 have captured a clearer image of a woman believed to be one of the assassins who killed Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
  • The image zooms in on the alleged killer's features, depicting her to be middle-aged and of Asian descent.
  • In the grainy image, she can be seen wearing a top with the word "LOL" in large letters and a blue short skirt, with her right hand over a small sling handbag.
  • North Korea embassy officials leave the morgue at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital where Kim Jong Nam's body is held for autopsy in Malaysia.
  • Jong-nam, 45, died after he was attacked at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2) on Monday.
  • He is believed to have been attacked by two female agents who splashed his face with a chemical at the airport's departure hall at about 9am on Monday.
  • A statement confirming the death from the Royal Malaysia Police force.
  • Three cars belonging to the North Korean embassy were seen in the compound of the mortuary at Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL). At least two of the cars were parked inside the compound while the third was seen parked outside with a police patrol car parked behind it. The cars had diplomatic number plates, one of which was 28-35-DC.
  • Occupants of the cars were at the mortuary where a post-mortem on the body of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was being carried out.
  • North Korean female agents operating in Malaysia have reportedly assassinated the half-brother of the North's leader, Kim Jong-Un - a one-time heir apparent who became a critic of the Stalinist regime.
  • South Korean media said Tuesday that Kim Jong-Nam was killed with poisoned needles at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Officials in Seoul and the Malaysian capital could not confirm his death.
  • Malaysian police said in a statement late Tuesday that a North Korean man, identified as Kim Chol, sought medical assistance at the airport and died on the way to hospital.
  • South Korean media said Jong-Nam had travelled using a fake passport under the name of Kim Chol.
  • If confirmed, it would be the highest-profile death under the Jong-Un regime since the execution of the leader's uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
  • Jong-Un has been trying to strengthen his grip on power in the face of growing international pressure over his country's nuclear and missile programmes. He has reportedly staged a series of executions. The latest launch of a new intermediate-range missile on Sunday brought UN Security Council condemnation and vows of a strong response from US President Donald Trump.
  • South Korea's national news agency Yonhap quoted a source as saying agents of the North's spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, carried out the assassination on Monday by taking advantage of a security loophole between Jong-Nam's bodyguards and Malaysian police at the airport.
  • Malaysian private security guards stand guard outside the Forensics department at Putrajaya Hospital in Putrajaya on February 14, 2017, where the body of a North Korean man suspected to be Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is believed to be kept.
  • The 45-year-old was killed by two unidentified females wielding poisoned needles at the airport, according to South Korean broadcaster TV Chosun.
  • It said the women hailed a cab and fled immediately afterwards. Jong-Nam, the eldest son of former leader Kim Jong-Il, was once seen as heir apparent but fell out of favour following an embarrassing botched attempt in 2001 to enter Japan on a forged passport and visit Disneyland. He has since lived in virtual exile, mainly in the Chinese territory of Macau.
  • A pedestrian walks in front of a clinic where a North Korean man suspected to be Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is believed had been taken at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA 2) in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur on February 14, 2017.
  • His half-brother took over as leader when their father died in December 2011. Jong-Nam, known as an advocate of reform in the North, once told a Japanese newspaper that he opposed his country's dynastic system of power.
  • He was reportedly close to his uncle Song-Thaek, once the North's unofficial number two and political mentor of the current leader. Cheong Seong-Jang, senior researcher at Seoul's Sejong Institute think-tank, said Jong-Nam had been living in near-exile so it was unlikely that Jong-Un saw him as a potential competitor for power.
  • Policemen stand outside the morgue at Putrajaya hospital in Malaysia February 15, 2017.
  • In 2014, Jong-Nam was reported to be in Indonesia - sighted at an Italian restaurant in Jakarta - and was said to be shuttling back and forth between Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and France.
  • N Korean officials scuffle with media outside the KL hospital.
  • N Korean officials speaking to Malaysian authorities.
  • The Korean restaurant along Tanjong Pagar road where Kim Jong Nam was said to have dined in when he was spotted in Singapore in 2014.

EASY ENTRY

Ri met Chong infrequently, driving with his daughter to Chong's office in Kuala Lumpur. The men discussed business opportunities, such as palm oil importation, with Ri's daughter translating from Korean into English and vice versa. Nothing, however, came from the talks, Chong said.

The duo last met in January.

Malaysia is about the only foreign country that a North Korean can easily enter, thanks to a visa-free policy for visitors that is largely reciprocated by Pyongyang. Since the 1980s, North Korea has used the Southeast Asian nation as a hub to promote its strategic and business interests, legitimate and otherwise, some analysts say.

However ties are under strain following the killing of Kim Jong Nam.

Read also: We cannot trust Malaysian investigation: N Korea

Kim died last week after being assaulted at the airport with what police believe was a fast-acting poison. The two women who assaulted him, one who is Indonesian and another who carried a Vietnamese passport, are both in custody.

Police have said they are also seeking four other North Koreans who fled the country on the day Kim was murdered.

South Korean and US officials believe Kim was killed by agents from the North, possibly on orders from his half-brother because he had spoken out publicly about his family's dynastic control of the nuclear-armed nation.

Malaysia has not gone that far, but it has been annoyed by Pyongyang's suggestions that its police are acting at the behest of South Korea.

COSY TIES

North Korea and Malaysia have had a cosy relationship since former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad embraced the isolated state, in part to rebuff the United States.

However, two-way trade between the two nations was worth only 23 million ringgit (S$7 million) in 2015.

Even so, Malaysia's Proton cars have been sold to North Korea and used as taxis in Pyongyang. North Korean miners work in Malaysia's Sarawak province while Malaysian palm oil and rubber is exported to the communist state.

The Kim dynasty: North Korea's secretive rulers

  • Following a successful missile test and the murder of his half-brother in Kuala Lumpur, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has been thrust back into the headlines. Here's a look at the hermit state's ruling dynasty.
  • Known as "The Eternal President", Kim Il Sung established the North Korean dictatorship after World War II. With the help of the Soviets who installed him, he purged political enemies and laid the foundations for the regime we see today.
  • Kim Il Sung had three children; Kim Man Il, Kim Kyung Hee and his successor Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il ran the country after his father's death in 1994.
  • State media announced the death of "The Dear Leader" on December 19, 2011. He is thought to have had at least four female partners.
  • Kim Jong Il had an affair with actress Song Hye-rim, before marrying his first wife Kim Yong Suk (not pictured). The pair had a son, Kim Jong-nam.
  • Kim Jong-nam was raised in secrecy and tipped to take the North Korean crown after his father's death, but fell out of favor after being caught trying to travel to Disneyland. He was allegedly murdered in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 13, 2017.
  • Another one of Kim Jong Il's lovers. Ko Yong Hui was working as a dancer before becoming his partner and bore him two sons and a daughter. One of the sons is Kim Jong-Un, the country's current leader. She died in 2004.
  • The supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), lLittle is known for sure about Kim Jong Un. Even his birth date is uncertain but he is believed to be around 33 years old.
  • Before taking power, he had barely been seen in public, and many of the activities of both Kim and his government remain shrouded in secrecy.
  • The oldest son of Kim Jong Il but passed over for the top job by his younger brother Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Chul was initially seen as the successor but a book written by a chef to the family suggested he was viewed as too soft for the job.
  • Mystery also surrounds Kim Yo Chong, the younger sister of Kim Yong Un. Born in 1987, she reportedly attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland.
  • The International Business Times reported that in October 2014 she possibly took over state duties for her brother while he underwent medical treatment.

Last year, the chief executive of the Malaysia External Trade Development Corp, Dzulkifli Mahmud, spoke of North Korea"using Malaysia as a gateway to Southeast Asian markets as it finds the country business-friendly with pro-business policies."

James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at Australia's University of Tasmania, said the trade figures do not include substantial illicit economic activity, much of it directed through the North Korean embassy and front companies.

"Malaysia is the source of a lot of smuggling operations by North Korea to raise money for the motherland," he said. "They also buy a lot of high-end consumer goods in Malaysia for the elite in Pyongyang."

Read also: Siti Aishah a 'victim' in Kim Jong-nam case: Indonesian VP

Photo: Reuters, AsiaOne