Park arrest, Malaysia deal: Let the corks pop in Pyongyang

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Posted: Mar 31, 2017 7:40 AM
Park arrest, Malaysia deal: Let the corks pop in Pyongyang

TOKYO (AP) — There might well have been some corks popping in Pyongyang on Friday.

Not only did North Korean officials manage to repatriate the body of leader Kim Jong Un's estranged half brother and three North Korean citizens questioned in his assassination after a diplomatic standoff with Malaysia, but they also had the distinct pleasure of watching the humiliating arrest of their arch-enemy, South Korea's fallen president, Park Geun-hye.

And all in the same day, no less.

The two bits of news may not exactly qualify as happy endings even for Pyongyang. There's still a murder trial to be held in Malaysia that could be very embarrassing, and the fall of Park hardly ends the two Koreas' conflicts.

But coming just ahead of the North's biggest official festivities of the year, the April 15th celebrations of the birth anniversary of national founder and "eternal president" Kim Il Sung, they might be adding a little more pep to the leader gratitude being expressed within the regime these days.

The political demise of Park was — one would imagine — particularly sweet for Pyongyang.

She entered the Seoul Detention Center in a black sedan before dawn Friday after a court approved her arrest on corruption allegations. She was ordered to change into light-green prison clothes, then locked in a solitary cell with just a television, a toilet, a sink, a table and a mattress.

Her scandalous downfall has been a stunning turn of events that the North has repeatedly capitalized on as proof of her moral failings — and by extension the superiority of its own leadership. She is expected to face charges of extortion, bribery and abuse of power and could face life imprisonment if convicted.

That's nothing compared to what Pyongyang had in mind for her father, Park Chung-hee, when he was president.

It sent commandos after him in 1968 in an infamous and spectacularly unsuccessful attack on the presidential Blue House. Another attempt to kill the elder Park, by an ethnic Korean-Japanese who was a North Korean sympathizer, was thwarted in the Seoul National Theater in 1974, but a stray bullet hit and killed Park Guen-hye's mother. Park Chung-hee was gunned down five years later by his own intelligence chief.

With that kind of bad blood, it's not surprising Park Geun-hye was a hardliner toward Pyongyang. North Korea's state-run media hammered her in the harshest terms throughout her presidency, and its aftermath.

The North's official news agency ran two related stories Friday, one noting an anti-Park rally. The other cited an opinion poll about concerns of "fake news" in South Korea, which the North's report concluded is "clear proof of the deplorable situation in South Korea plagued by deception, swindling, corruption and irregularities."

The equally bizarre saga in Malaysia came to a head Thursday night with a political deal that allowed nine Malaysians in North Korea to return home. Each country had barred the other's citizens from leaving its soil in a dispute over the investigation of the killing of Kim Jong Nam, who was poisoned in the crowded budget terminal at Kuala Lumpur's airport on Feb. 13.

In exchange, Malaysia not only allowed more than 300 North Koreans to return home, but also granted Pyongyang's most important demand — custody of Kim Jong Nam's body — and even allowed three people sought for questioning who had been holed up at the North Korean Embassy to leave the country. The men were expected to have returned to Pyongyang Friday after being seen transiting Beijing airport.

Malaysia's police chief declined to say who in Kim Jong Nam's family wrote the letter asking that his body be brought back to North Korea. Kim had three children who live outside North Korea, but Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters Friday, "Legally speaking, Kim Jong Un is the next-of-kin."

Malaysia seemed to have no appetite for a protracted standoff.

"Faced with a similar situation, even major world powers like the U.S. and Japan will be hapless vis-a-vis North Korea," said Oh Ei Sun, an adjunct senior fellow with Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "Malaysia is only trying to make the best out of the situation by securing the earliest release of the Malaysians."

Malaysian officials said they had already performed an autopsy and identified the body using DNA from Kim's son. They said they questioned and cleared the three North Koreans before allowing them to leave the country.

Some experts believe the sophisticated and rare VX nerve agent used in Kim Jong Nam's murder suggested a state-orchestrated hit, with North Korea as the prime suspect. Experts say the VX was almost certainly produced in a state-run weapons laboratory and North Korea is widely believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons.

North Korea vehemently denied any involvement and accused the Malaysians of either being dupes or liars. Moreover, it has stuck to its story that the victim was just a guy named Kim Chol, the name on the passport he was carrying when he died. Never has the name Kim Jong Nam appeared in its state media or official statements.

No North Koreans have been formally charged in connection with the killing, though four suspects who left Malaysia the day Kim died remain at large.

The only people awaiting their day in court are two young women, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese. The women, who allegedly rubbed the substance onto Kim's face, say they were tricked into thinking they were taking part in a hidden-camera prank TV show.

If convicted, they could be sent to the gallows.

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AP writer Eileen Ng contributed to this report from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at @erictalmadge