Chong Ah Kow, during an interview with foreign and domestic reporters on Feb. 20 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (by Park Su-ji, staff reporter)
Managing director of company that employed Ri Jong-chol says Ri presented himself as an IT expert, but didn’t follow through
Ri Jong-chol, 47, who was arrested as a suspect in the killing of Kim Jong-nam, 46, half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was confirmed to have been a middleman buying commodities in Malaysia and selling them to North Korea. The Malaysian police said that Ri was working in the IT department of a Malaysian company, but his actual role appears to have been a commerce agent for North Korea.
“Ri Jong-chol was a middleman who was planning to buy palm oil, sugar, and biscuits from me and sell them to North Korea,” said Chong Ah Kow, 64, during an interview with the Hankyoreh on Feb. 20. Chong, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, is the managing director of Ri’s employer Tombo Enterprise, a Malaysian company that sells various products, including supplements for fighting cancer.
“Ri Jong-chol was the nephew of a friend that I met in Pyongyang. I hired him in 2013 because he said he wanted to work here,” Chong said.
But Chong added that Ri “was not a company employee” who regularly came in to work. “I never paid him a regular salary, and no money changed hands, because no deals went through,” he said.
Since 2013, Chong said he had only actually seen Ri Jong-chol “about five times.” Chong added that, “on paper, Ri was receiving a monthly salary of 5,000 ringgits,” worth about US$1,120.
The reason Ri Jong-chol was registered as a company employee even though he was actually a business partner appears to have been so that he could receive an employment visa. Officially, Ri has the i-KAD identification of a foreign worker and is listed as an employee of this company.
“Ri Jong-chol needed a visa for his own residency and for his daughter, who is currently enrolled in university. Since Ri wasn’t fluent in English, his daughter interpreted for him whenever we met,” Chong said.
If Ri Jong-chol didn’t engage in any transactions with Tombo Enterprise after making the relationship in 2013, it’s also possible that he was playing another role in Kuala Lumpur. But another possibility is that Chong avoided telling the truth out of concern for his relationship with North Korea and for the police investigation.
Chong‘s most recent meeting with Ri Jong-chol, he said, was “at the end of January, just before the Chinese New Year.” “I attempted to purchase some North Korean mushrooms I needed for making health products from Ri Jong-chol, but the price wasn’t right,” he added.
When asked whether Ri Jong-chol was involved in any other businesses, Chong said, “I don‘t know.”
In regard to IT, Chong said that “Ri Jong-chol had presented himself as an IT expert who was going to develop electronic harmonicas, but he didn’t live up to expectations.” He also said he “had no idea” that Ri Jong-chol was an expert in chemistry and pharmacology.
“Ri Jong-chol was a quiet and humble person. I was very shocked to see the news of his arrest,” Chong said. Chong even made an inquiry with the North Korean Embassy, but said he “was told by the embassy not to worry and to take care of my health.” After the incident, “I also tried contacting Ri Jong-chol‘s daughter but I couldn’t get in touch with her,” he added.
By way of explaining his connection with North Korea, Chong said he had played the harmonica in ten or so concerts in Pyongyang since the 1990s. Chong, who also served as the chair of an overseas Chinese cultural society in Malaysia, visited North Korea more than 10 times between 1992 and 2014. The Hankyoreh also learned that he has occasionally been invited to a celebration for the birthday of Kim Jong-il (Feb. 16, called the Day of the Shining Star), which takes place in a North Korean restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.
The website of Tombo Enterprise describes it as a company established in 1976 that deals in anti-cancer supplements. Along with providing consultations about cancer treatment to people with cancer, the company sells cancer supplements that are made with traditional Oriental medicine and publishes books about treating cancer.
By Park Su-ji, staff reporter in Kuala Lumpur
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