Malaysia: N. Korean's family may be scared to come forward

Police officers take position outside North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. North Korea closed its borders Tuesday to Malaysians who want to leave the country, spurring Malaysia to issue a retaliatory order and drawing hundreds of ordinary people into an increasingly bitter diplomatic battle over the killing of an exiled member of North Korea's ruling family.(AP Photo/Daniel Chan)

Malaysia's prime minister says relatives of the half brother of North Korea's ruler may be too scared to help police investigating his mysterious poisoning death in Kuala Lumpur

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's prime minister said Wednesday that relatives of the half brother of North Korea's ruler may be too scared to help police investigating his mysterious poisoning death in Kuala Lumpur. A man claiming to be the victim's son, meanwhile, appeared in an online video saying he and his family were safe in a location he did not reveal.

Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke a day after a stunning diplomatic breakdown involving the investigation into Kim Jong Nam's killing, with North Korea barring Malaysians from leaving its territory and Malaysia responding in kind. While on Tuesday he denounced North Korea for "effectively holding our citizens hostage," Najib said Wednesday that his country still wants to negotiate.

"You must appreciate — I know you're hungry for news — but you must appreciate that this is a sensitive matter and that sometimes it's best conducted in secrecy so that we can achieve the desired result," Najib told reporters. He said Malaysians in North Korea are going about their lives normally, and he was not worried about their safety.

Malaysian authorities have charged two women — one Indonesian, one Vietnamese — with murder for allegedly swiping Kim's face with VX nerve agent as he waited for a flight home to Macau on Feb. 13. He was dead within 20 minutes. Malaysian is seeking seven North Korean suspects, including an embassy official. The investigation has infuriated North Korea, which has dismissed the inquiry as politically motivated.

Najib also said authorities are still trying to get DNA samples from Kim's immediate family to formally identify his body.

"Maybe they are scared to come forward," Najib said.

Kim Jong Nam had three children with two women living in Beijing and Macau. On Wednesday, an online video in which a man claiming to be his son Kim Han Sol said he, his mother and his sister were safe.

"My father has been killed a few days ago," the man says in English in the 40-second YouTube clip. "I'm currently with my mother and my sister. ... We hope this gets better soon."

The man doesn't talk about his family's whereabouts or how they were being protected. The video was posted on the YouTube channel of Cheollima Civil Defense, which describes itself as a group helping North Korean defectors.

The group said on its website that it responded to an "emergency request" by three members of Kim Jong Nam's family and relocated them. The group expressed gratitude to the Netherlands, China, the United States and a "fourth government to remain unnamed" for providing assistance in protecting the three.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said it had no knowledge of the Cheollima group, but an official at South Korea's National Intelligence Service said the NIS had determined that the man in the video is Kim Han Sol. The public affairs official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules, didn't explain how his agency confirmed the man's identity.

NIS officials gave the same confirmation to the office of a lawmaker who sits on South Korea's intelligence committee without saying how it reached such a conclusion, according to an aide to the lawmaker. The aide requested anonymity for both himself and the lawmaker, saying they weren't authorized to give the information to the media.

The Transcription Analysis Laboratory, a private voice analysis institute in Seoul, analyzed the video and an interview Kim Han Sol gave to Finnish television in 2012 and said there was a "high probability" the two clips were of the same speaker.

Malaysian authorities say the two women who poisoned Kim Jong Nam were recruited by a team of North Koreans. North Korea has denied any responsibility and accused Malaysia of being swayed by the North's enemies.

Relations have steadily deteriorated, with each country expelling the other's ambassador. The dispute took a surprising turn on Tuesday when North Korea announced that it was blocking all Malaysians from leaving the country until a "fair settlement" of the case was reached. Malaysia then barred North Koreans from exiting its soil.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also said Wednesday that Malaysia is willing to negotiate.

"So far, we believe they are going to act rationally," he said. "We believe what is important for us is to maintain our diplomatic relationship with them because I think what is important is the safety of our citizens in Pyongyang."

Officials in Kuala Lumpur say there are 11 Malaysians currently in North Korea: three working at the embassy, two U.N. employees and six family members. About 1,000 North Koreans are believed to be in Malaysia, until recently one of the few countries where North Koreans could travel without a visa.

Four of the North Korean suspects being sought by Malaysia are believed to have left the country the day Kim Jong Nam was killed. Police say the remaining three suspects, including a North Korean diplomat, are believed to be in hiding at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, a hulking concrete mansion behind a wall streaked with water stains.

National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said Tuesday that Malaysia would not raid the embassy, which is protected under diplomatic law, but would wait for the suspects to emerge "if it takes five years."

A senior U.S. official on Wednesday accused North Korea of conducting a political assassination on Malaysian soil.

Daniel Russel, the State Department's assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, hailed Malaysia's conduct of the murder investigation.

"The hijacking of the territory of a country by a foreign power for the purpose of murder - for the purpose of political assassination - is reprehensible and my sympathies go to Malaysia on that account," he said in a teleconference with regional media.

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Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan in New Delhi and Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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