A North Korean diplomat said Thursday that Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of ruler Kim Jong Un, probably died of a heart attack, despite Malaysia's finding last week that he was killed by VX nerve agent, one of the world's most toxic substances.
Ri Tong Il, a senior North Korean diplomat, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital — where he's leading a high-level delegation to recover Kim Jong Nam's body — that Kim had a history of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. He provided no evidence, and Malaysia dismissed the claim.
Kim, 46, was once considered a potential successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, and South Korean officials have accused Pyongyang of ordering his assassination.
Malaysian police say two women approached Kim at the Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13 and rubbed VX nerve agent, which is banned by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, on his face. He died within 20 minutes. The two women — one from Indonesia and one from Vietnam — were charged with murder Wednesday. They have told investigators they thought they were participating in a prank.
Kim's death has caused concern around the region, exacerbating diplomatic tension between North Korea and Malaysia, as well as China, where Kim lived in exile.
Ri on Thursday refused to acknowledge that the dead man was Kim, instead calling him Kim Chol, a name found on his passport (South Korean officials have called the name an alias). He questioned why the two women did not get ill.
"They are the ones who directly contained the liquid on the palms of the hands to apply to the face," Ri said, adding that if VX was used, Malaysian authorities should send samples to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Malaysia has said that both women immediately washed their hands after the incident and that one vomited.
Malaysian police have implicated seven North Koreans in the case, including four who left the country on the day of Kim's death. Two of the suspects have reportedly taken refuge at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The location of one is unknown.
Malaysian authorities are holding one North Korean man in connection with the case but announced Thursday that he would be released and deported, as there was "insufficient evidence to charge him."
Malaysia has recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang, and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has announced new visa restrictions on North Korea starting Monday. Since 2009, Malaysia has been one of the only countries that allow entry to North Koreans visa-free. About 1,000 North Koreans live and work in the country.
Malaysia has refused to give up Kim's body before attaining DNA samples from his immediate family.
"We have our experts who are qualified to determine the cause of death of Kim Chol," Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia's national police chief, told the Associated Press. "Our investigations, supported by expert reports, confirmed that Kim Chol was murdered. North Korea can say what they like, but the facts remain."
10:30a.m.: This article has been updated with Times reporting.