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Under fire but defiant, North Korea sends envoys to court its few friends

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 28, 2017, 5:11 p.m.

By Anna Fifield Washington Post

TOKYO – North Korea has sent a high-ranking diplomat to Malaysia to try to secure the remains of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of the North Korean leader who was killed in a chemical weapon poisoning earlier this month.

Malaysian police, meanwhile, said they would press murder charges against the two women accused of carrying out the attack and seek the death penalty as punishment.

The astonishing assassination of Kim Jong Nam – with a certified weapon of mass destruction at a busy airport – has not only raised questions about the North’s role in possibly plotting the killing but also has strained Pyongyang’s relations with its few friends in the world.

As one North Korean delegation arrived in Kuala Lumpur, another landed in Beijing, just days after the Chinese government imposed a potentially devastating coal ban on North Korea. Pyongyang responded by accusing its closest ally of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”

Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was killed in the attack with VX, an internationally banned nerve agent, in the budget airline terminal of Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13.

South Korea has directly accused Kim Jong Un of ordering a “terrorist” attack to remove a potential rival, and Yun Byung-se, the South’s foreign minister, Tuesday called for North Korea to be expelled from the United Nations.

“Now is the time, I believe, for us to seriously consider taking more fundamental measures on their membership in relevant regional and international forums including the U.N.,” he told a conference in Geneva, according to the South’s Yonhap News Agency.

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, Ri Tong Il, a former North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, said that he was seeking to discuss the “humanitarian issue” of the return of the body as well as the release of a North Korean scientist arrested in connection with the murder.

Malaysia says it will not release the body without DNA identification, but no family member has come forward to provide it. North Korea has not admitted that the body belongs to the leader’s half brother, simply referring to him as a North Korea citizen on a diplomatic passport.

“Development of friendly relations between North Korea and the Malaysian government will also be discussed,” Ri told reporters outside the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia, which had relatively cordial relations with fellow nonaligned North Korea, has implicated eight North Koreans in the attack. In addition to the scientist, it has named Hyon Kwang Song, second secretary at the embassy, as being involved.

Separately, Malaysian police said the two women arrested for carrying out the attack would be charged with murder in court on Wednesday. The pair, Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong and Indonesian citizen Siti Aisyah, have both claimed they were set up and told the attack was just a prank for a reality TV show and paid about $90 to participate.

But security camera footage shows the women moving with determination and hurrying to the restrooms afterward, presumably to wash their hands. VX, which killed Kim Jong Nam within 20 minutes, has an oily consistency that is soluble in cold water.

In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry said Tuesday it had invited North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Ri Kil Song, to discuss “issues of mutual concern.”

Following North Korea’s launch of a medium-range ballistic missile earlier this month – then the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam – China announced it would suspend all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of the year.

Coal is North Korea’s largest export and almost all of it goes through China, meaning that the move, if implemented as outlined, would cut off a major financial lifeline for Pyongyang.

After the announcement, North Korea’s state news agency released an unusually punchy commentary attacking a neighboring country “styling itself (as) a big power” of “mean behavior.” The Chinese language version was even more overtly hostile, headlined: “Contemptible Method, Vulgar Calculation.”

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