Malaysian police investigating the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother believe they know somebody who might help them solve one of the most bizarre murder mysteries they have ever faced. They know his name, his nationality and have a pretty good idea where he’s holed up. The problem is he’s a North Korean diplomat.
It’s unusual for any country to simply hand over a diplomat, no matter the alleged crime. But for North Korea, in particular, the line between immunity and impunity can seem to be a pretty fine one.
Take the 2015 case of the first secretary of North Korea’s embassy in Bangladesh, who was found to be carrying a diplomatic bag full of 170 undeclared gold bars worth an estimated USD1.4 million. He was arrested but later released, with no charges filed, and left the country. The following year, another official at the same embassy was asked to leave the country after an attempt to smuggle a shipping container full of 1 million cigarettes and electronics worth another $1 million.
First secretary Hyon Kwang Song is the current person of interest. Most North Korean nationals suspects have left the country, but authorities say they believe three — diplomat Hyon, an employee of Air Koryo, the country’s flag carrier, and a person named Ri Ji U — remain.
If so, it’s not hard to imagine where they might be: the North Korean Embassy, a plain, yellow two-story house in an affluent neighborhood just 10 minutes from downtown.
Whether they are indeed at the embassy is anybody’s guess. Police can’t check because to do so they need permission from North Korea, which so far has said absolutely not and suggested the investigation is a witch hunt inspired by some unnamed foreign power.
National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said investigators have submitted a request through Malaysia’s foreign ministry to the North Korean Embassy to interview the diplomat. “If you have nothing to hide, you do not have to be afraid,” he said. “You should cooperate.”
But that’s not what international practice says. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says a foreign diplomat is “inviolable” and is not liable to any form of arrest or detention. It says the host country must treat a foreign diplomat “with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” It also adds that “a diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state.” That can only be waived by the diplomat’s own government.
While diplomats aren’t always the perfectly law-abiding citizens that we might hope, when diplomatic immunity and the realities of a criminal investigation butt heads, local police tend to have the weaker hand.
And that doesn’t bode well for Malaysian investigators hoping North Korea will open its doors.
“If he is a Korean diplomat with a diplomatic passport, then he has immunity no matter a criminal case or otherwise,” lawyer Sankara Nair, who has handled several cases involving diplomats, told The Associated Press in Kuala Lumpur. “The police can apply any warrants they want but it can easily be set aside by the embassy.” Eric Talmadge, Tokyo, AP
Seoul: four spies involved in murder
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers yesterday that four North Korean government spies were involved in the killing of Kim Jong Nam. Lawmakers cited the agency telling them in a private briefing that four of the North Koreans identified as suspects by Malaysian police investigating the Feb. 13 murder are from the Ministry of State Security, the North’s spy organ.