'Embassy 9' release: First plan fell through at 11th hour

FARRAH NAZ KARIM


AFTER more than three weeks of intense talks, back-channel negotiations and meetings cloaked in secrecy, Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang last night executed a mutually agreed plan that finally enabled the release of nine Malaysians, held “hostage” in North Korea, to return home.

In a high-stakes arrangement to end a more than two-week long diplomatic impasse, Kuala Lumpur despatched a Royal Malaysian Air Force Bombardier Global Express jet at 10.50am yesterday morning to bring home the “The Embassy Nine”, who were under Pyongyang’s custody since March 7, when they were slapped with a travel ban.

Malaysia then responded with a similar ban on all North Koreans in the country.

The New Straits Times was made to understand that under a reciprocal deal that preceded yesterday’s arrangement — first achieved in the late hours of Saturday — Kuala Lumpur had agreed to allow the three men that its authorities had been seeking to facilitate investigations into the high-profile assassination of Kim Jong-nam at klia2 on the morning of Feb 13 to leave the country.

The other deal was for the remains of Jong-nam to be handed over to Pyongyang, which maintains that the body was that of its citizen, identified as Kim Chol.

It is understood that Pyong-yang argued that “Kim Chol’s” remains would be returned to his next of kin in North Korea.

It was soon after the high-profile Feb 13 murder that the North Korean embassy here, through an official letter, had demanded that his body be handed over to them.

Their argument was that his (Kim Chol’s) wife, one “Ri Yong Hui”, did not approve of a post-mortem and had asked for the mission to bring his remains back to Pyongyang.

The take-off from Kuala Lumpur yesterday was scheduled for 6pm. However, the aircraft, MH360, only began taxiing about an hour and a half later.

It took off at 7.45pm. This, it is understood was timed to the last second to synchronise with the movement of the aircraft carrying the Malaysians, which departed Pyongyang just a few minutes later.

The NST learnt that the aircraft from Pyongyang made a two-hour transit in Fuzhou, China, before heading home.

The three suspects on board MH360 left the country shadowed by the four North Korean delegates who formed the negotiation team.

The anticipation of an imminent deal began firming up on Friday as news of the high-powered North Korean delegation’s arrival emerged.

Led by the chief negotiator, North Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Che Hi Chol and Pyongyang’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Ri Tong-il, the meeting, which began about 10am on Saturday, ended just before sunset.

The agreement reached included the repatriation of three men sought by Malaysian authorities to facilitate investigations into Jong-nam’s murder. Malaysia, it was agreed, would get to exfiltrate its nine citizens from North Korea.

On Sunday morning, a team of four police officers — including those handling the murder investigation — were seen entering the North Korean embassy here.

It is learnt that their presence there was to record the statements of the suspects who had been holed up in the bungalow at Jalan Batai here since the murder.

The NST learnt that the plan was supposed to be executed the next day but was scrubbed at the 11th hour, with the authorities swiftly moving in to secure Jong-nam’s body, which had earlier been released to Pyongyang.

That night, another round of talks was initiated, which resulted in yesterday’s arrangement.

For the second time yesterday, the coffin left the Kuala Lumpur Hospital’s (HKL) mortuary.

The hearse carrying the casket arrived at KLIA’s cargo centre just after 2pm.

The coffin bearing Jong-nam’s remains, wrapped in layers of plastic sheets and wax stamps with Pyongyang’s official seal, was loaded into the cargo hold of the Beijing-bound MH360 flight, just after 5pm.

The first plan agreed on by both countries fell through at the 11th hour on Monday.

It is learnt that an agreement could not be reached due to several contentious issues.

This turn of events led to the cancellation of travel movements of the three North Koreans who were supposed to leave on the same flight on Monday.

Authorities were also forced to move in swiftly to reclaim the coffin carrying Jong-nam’s remains, then already in Pyongyang’s possession.

The coffin had already been listed in the cargo manifest of Monday’s Malaysia Airlines’ flight.

It was then sent back to the HKL mortuary just after 9pm.

It is also understood that had negotiations been prolonged, the four North Korean delegates and three suspects to be released would not have been able to leave Malaysia for as long the nine Malaysians were not returned.