Kim Jong-nam’s remains arrive in North Korea

Three suspects in alleged assassination also return home after swap deal with Malaysia

Three North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader, returned home on Friday along with Mr Kim's body, after Malaysia agreed a swap deal with the reclusive state.

Malaysian police investigating what US and South Korean officials say was an assassination carried out by North Korean agents at Kuala Lumpur’s airport took statements from the three suspects before they were allowed to leave the country.

“We have obtained whatever we want from them . . . They have assisted us and they have been allowed to leave,” police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference in the Malaysian capital, saying there were no grounds to hold the men.

Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korea’s unpredictable leader Kim Jong-un, was killed at the airport on February 13th in an incident involving VX nerve agent, a chemical so lethal the UN has listed it as a weapon of mass destruction.

China's foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said the remains of a North Korean citizen killed in Malaysia were returned to North Korea via Beijing, along with "relevant" North Korean citizens.

Malaysian authorities released Mr Kim's body on Thursday in a deal that secured the release of nine Malaysian citizens who were held in Pyongyang after a drawn-out diplomatic spat following the killing.

Malaysian police had named eight North Koreans they wanted to question in the case, including the three given safe passage to return home.

Television footage obtained by Reuters from Japanese media showed two of the suspects, Hyon Kwang-song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk-il, a North Korean state airline employee, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The police chief confirmed they were accompanied by compatriot Ri Ji-u, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian prosecutors have charged two women - from Indonesia and Vietnam - with killing Kim Jong-nam, but South Korean and US officials regard them as pawns in an operation carried out by North Korean agents.

Kim Jong-nam, who had been living in exile in the Chinese territory of Macau for several years, survived an attempt on his life in 2012, according to South Korean politicians.

They say Kim Jong-un had issued a “standing order” for the assassination of his half-brother, in order to consolidate his own power after the death of their father in 2011.

The other North Korean suspects named by Malaysian investigators are all back in North Korea.

Police believe four fled Malaysia on the same day as the murder, while another was held for a week before being released due to insufficient evidence.

Angered by the murder inquiry, North Korea ordered a travel ban on Malaysians this month, trapping three diplomats and six of their family members - including four children - in Pyongyang.

Malaysia, which previously had friendly ties with North Korea, responded with a ban of its own, but was left with little option but to accede to Pyongyang’s demands for the return of the body and safe passage for the three nationals hiding in the embassy.

Diplomatic ties

Malaysia will not snap diplomatic ties with North Korea following the row, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said during an official visit to India, state news agency Bernama reported.

"We hope they don't create a case like this again," Mr Najib told reporters in the southern city of Chennai.

“It will harm the relationship between the two countries.”

On Thursday, Mr Najib had announced the return of the body, but did not mention Mr Kim by name.

“Following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea, the coroner has approved the release of the body,” Mr Najib said, adding that the murder investigation would continue but the travel ban on North Koreans would be lifted.

North Korea has maintained that the dead man is not Kim Jong-nam, saying instead the body is that of Kim Chol, which was the name on the victim’s passport.

However, Malaysian police used a DNA sample to establish the victim was Kim Jong-nam.

The nine Malaysians who had been trapped in Pyongyang arrived in Kuala Lumpur early on Friday on board a small jet operated by the Malaysian air force.

Pilot Hasrizan Kamis said the crew dressed in civilian clothes as a “precautionary step” for the mission.

The Plane Finder tracking website showed the jet took off from Pyongyang at the same time as the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH360 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.