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North Korean murder suspects go home with victim's body as Malaysia forced to swap

By Praveen Menon and James Pearson

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Three North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of the estranged half-brother of their country's leader were believed on their way home along with the body of Kim Jong Nam on Friday after Malaysia agreed a swap deal with the reclusive state.

Television footage obtained by Reuters from Japanese media showed Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk Il, a North Korean state airline employee on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Thursday evening.

Though there was no official confirmation of their departure the men were identifiable from handouts released by the Malaysian police during their investigation. Japanese broadcaster TBS also filmed what was believed to be the casket containing Kim Jong Nam's remains being loaded onto the same flight, though this was not confirmed by authorities either.

Malaysian media reported that a third North Korean, Ri Ji U, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was also allowed to go home.

The North Koreans and the casket were expected to be transferred to a flight from Beijing to Pyongyang on Friday.

Malaysian authorities released Kim's body on Thursday, in a deal that secured the release of nine Malaysian citizens held in Pyongyang after a drawn out diplomatic spat.

Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in exile for several years, was killed at Kuala Lumpur's airport on Feb.13 in a bizarre assassination using VX nerve agent, a chemical so lethal that it is on a U.N. list of weapons of mass destruction.

Malaysian prosecutors have charged two women - an Indonesian and a Vietnamese - with killing him, but they are regarded by South Korean and U.S. officials as pawns in an operation carried out by North Korean agents.

North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, had issued a "standing order" for his elder half-brother's assassination, according to some South Korean lawmakers, and there was a failed attempt on his life in 2012.

Malaysian police had named eight North Koreans they wanted to question in the case, including the three believed to have been given safe passage to leave Malaysia.

Of the others, police believe four fled Malaysia on the same day as the murder and another was held for a week before being released due to insufficient evidence.

Angered by the probe North Korea slammed a travel ban on Malaysians, trapping three diplomats and six family members - including four children - in Pyongyang.

Malaysia, which had previously friendly ties with the unpredictable nuclear-armed state, responded with a ban of its own, but was left with little option but to accede to North Korea's demands for the return of the body and safe passage for the three nationals hiding in the embassy.

"CLEAR WINNER"

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak , who is currently on an official visit in India, issued a statement announcing the return of the body, but did not mention Kim by name.

"Following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea, the coroner has approved the release of the body," Najib said, adding that the murder investigation would continue.

North Korea has maintained that the dead man is not Kim Jong Nam and that the body is that of Kim Chol, the name given in a passport found on the victim.

Najib's statement did not mention the safe passage given to the North Koreans that police had wanted to question, but it did say the travel ban on North Koreans leaving Malaysia had been lifted.

North Korea also released a statement saying both countries managed to "resolve issues arising from the death of a DPRK national."

The swap agreement brings to an end nearly seven weeks of diplomatic standoff, with Pyongyang finally getting its way, analysts said.

"It is a win (for North Korea), clearly,” Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University said on the swap deal. "I presume the Malaysians decided not to get too involved in a remote country's palace intrigues, and wanted their hostages back."

Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic control of the isolated, nuclear-armed nation.

Fearful of his half-brother's regime, he spent the last few years living in exile in the Chinese territory of Macau, and his family has gone into hiding since the murder.

SIMULTANEOUS TAKE-OFF

The nine Malaysians who had been trapped in Pyongyang arrived in Kuala Lumpur early Friday morning on board a small Bombardier business jet operated by the Malaysian air force.

Pilot Hasrizan Kamis said the crew dressed in civilian clothes as a "precautionary step" for the mission.

According to the Plane Finder tracking website the Bombardier took off from Pyongyang at the same time that the Malaysian Airlines flight MH360 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.

Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain, one of the returning diplomats, said it had been an anxious period but they "were not particularly harassed" by the North Korean authorities.

The episode, however, is likely to have cost North Korea one of its few friends.

“I think this relationship is going to go into cold storage for a very long time,” said Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian diplomat.

(Additional reporting by A.Ananthalakshmi and Joseph Sipalan,; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)