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(LEAD) S. Korea sees Pyongyang behind killing of N.K. leader's half brother

All Headlines 18:59 February 19, 2017

(ATTN: REWRITES lead; UPDATES with more info throughout)

SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's unification ministry said Sunday that it views Pyongyang as being behind the killing of the half brother of the North's leader Kim Jong-un, given that five of involved suspects are identified as North Korean nationals.

Seoul's reaction came as Malaysian police arrested Ri Jong-chol, a 46-year-old North Korean man, in connection with the death of Kim Jong-nam on Friday. The police said they are searching for four more North Koreans who fled Malaysia on the same day of Kim's death.

"Given that there are five suspects identified as North Korean nationals, the government judges that North Korea's regime is behind the latest incident," Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, told a press briefing.

Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of late former leader Kim Jong-il, was killed at an airport in Malaysia on Monday after two Asian women sprayed an unidentified poisonous substance on his face.

Jeong said that Seoul is closely watching the latest "reckless and horrible" killing with grave concerns, given that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity and terrorist acts.

Malaysian police said earlier in the day that the four North Korean suspects who left the country have been identified as Ri Ji-hyon, Hong Song-hac, O Jong-gil and Ri Jae-nam. They are also looking for three others as possible associates.

They said that an investigation is still under way to determine the exact cause of Kim's death.

Malaysian police have already taken into custody two female suspects -- one from Vietnam and the other from Indonesia -- over Kim's killing. The women are known to claim that they were deceived into thinking that they were part of a comedy TV show.

Seoul's spy agency said last week that Kim Jong-un has issued a "standing order" to murder his half brother since he took office in late 2011.

Kim Jong-nam had been living in foreign countries for years after apparently falling out of favor with his father for attempting to enter Japan with a fake passport in 2001.

The latest case marked the most high-profile death under the Kim Jong-un regime since the execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, the once-powerful uncle of the incumbent leader.

Experts said that the assassination is seen as the North Korean leader's move to strengthen his reign of terror by eliminating any potential challengers to his one-man rule.

"North Korea is recklessly focusing on developing nuclear weapons and missiles as it test-fired a ballistic missile this year as well," Jeong said. "This clearly shows the serious security threats we are facing. The government will firmly defend the country's security in the face of North Korea's terrorist act and missile threats.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
(END)

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