Both air­craft moved al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously once go-ahead was given

New Straits Times - - Front Page - RE­PORTS BY FAR­RAH NAZ KARIM

THE nine Malaysians held ‘hostage’ in Py­ongyang are home. Af­ter a dra­matic, high-stakes se­ries of in­tense dis­cus­sions and back-chan­nel talks, Malaysian and North Korean ne­go­tia­tors fi­nally bro­kered a deal that saw the body of Kim Jong-nam and the three North Kore­ans be­lieved to be in­volved in his mur­der on Feb 13, be­ing flown back to the Her­mit King­dom. There were some heart-stop­ping mo­ments when the deal seemed to be in dan­ger of be­ing re­neged on. Prime Min­is­ter Datuk Seri Na­jib Razak says many had

“worked in­ten­sively be­hind the scenes to achieve this suc­cess­ful out­come.”

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 Py­ongyang 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 post­mortem 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.

At press time, the NST learnt that it would ar­rive in Kuala Lumpur about 5am to­day.

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 Jong­nam’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.

North Korean em­bassy’s sec­ond sec­re­tary Hyon Kwang-song (left) and Ko­ryo Air em­ployee Kim Uk-il, both among the three ear­lier sought by po­lice, on board MH360 yes­ter­day.

The cof­fin bear­ing Kim Jong-nam’s re­mains, wrapped in lay­ers of plas­tic sheets and wax stamped with Py­ongyang’s of­fi­cial seal, at KLIA yes­ter­day.

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