'Assassins': Who is Ri Jong-chol? North Korean suspect in Kim Jong-nam's death was a US diplomat until recently

Ri Jong-chol, a North Korean was arrested in February 2017 after being suspected of creating the nerve agent that had killed Kim Jong-nam, however, he was released when as part of a prisoner swap


                            'Assassins': Who is Ri Jong-chol? North Korean suspect in Kim Jong-nam's death was a US diplomat until recently
Ri Jong Chol (Getty Images)

Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. From roughly 1994 to 2001, he was considered the heir apparent to his father. Kim Jong-nam died in February 2017 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia after two women - Siti Aisyah, from Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong, from Vietnam - were fooled into believing that they were shooting a prank and smeared a VX nerve agent on Kim Jong-nam's face and less than 20 minutes later he was dead. The half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had fallen out of favor with his powerful family.

Reportedly, four North Koreans were suspected of planning the entire thing but none of them were punished or taken to court. Instead, the two women who committed the crime ended up going to jail and were also serving their sentence until not very long ago. To add to this, one of the North Korean nationals, Ri Jong- chol, who was arrested by Malaysian authorities, until quite recently lived in the US before being deported in September 2020.

Who is Ri Jong-chol and what is his connection to the whole crime?

Ri Jong-chol is reportedly believed to have concocted the nerve agent at home according to a report in Al Jazeera. In fact, the man has a background in IT as well as chemistry and he lived a life of cover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as an employee at a herbal medicine company. In reality, though, he did not report to work more than a few days despite drawing a salary of $1200 every month. It is reported that he had been as a favor to the company's owner's friend. What Jong-chol was really doing was helping "North Korea dodge sanctions by sourcing what it needed, making money and doing it with a cover story" states the report.

So if he was arrested, you might wonder how he ended up in the US. According to one of the accused women Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi, the police were not objective and definitely incompetent while investigating Jong-chol. His house was never checked for remnants of the VX nerve agent that had killed Kim Jong-nam. He was not questioned more than once and within days of being arrested, Jong-chol was sent to North Korea as part of a prisoner swap. It is reported that this happened in the quiet and that Malaysian authorities had gone along with this plan. So Jong-chol had been transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing before arriving at his home country. His daughter Ri Yu-gyong according to the text messages and emails accessed at the time of his arrest also suggested that she was a part of her father's business and helped him run it. 

Over the years, Jong-chol's power rose and he arrived in the US as a diplomat along with his daughter Yu-gyong and the two of them have been in the US until very recently. According to the Office of Public Affairs, Department of Justice; North Korean father and daughter Ri Jong-chol, Ri Yu-gyong, and Malaysian national Gan Chee Lim were "charged with conspiracy to violate North Korean Sanctions Regulations and bank fraud, and conspiracy to launder funds." Dated September 11, 2020, the press release by John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security stated, "Violations of U.S. sanctions on North Korea enrich the regime and allow it to continue to fund the destabilizing activities that the sanctions are meant to prevent." He further added, “These defendants allegedly violated U.S. sanctions by lying to international financial institutions in order to dupe them into processing transactions in U.S. dollars which they would not otherwise have cleared.  The Department of Justice will continue to investigate and prosecute violations of the North Korea sanctions so that one day that country may rejoin the community of nations.”

The press release further stated, "Court documents note that Ri Jong Chol was the Deputy Director of a company sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury, which referred to the company as a subordinate of North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.  The defendants discussed new sanctions on North Korea and referenced several news articles detailing those sanctions published by U.S. and U.K. news organizations.  They utilized shipping companies previously linked to the attempted sales of luxury goods to North Korea, and failed to seek the required licenses from the U.S. Government."

Neither Jong-chol or his daughter Yu-gyong are under US custody and so were not available for comment. 

'Assassins' is a documentary that is set to release on December 11 on Video on Demand is directed by Ryan White. 

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