BEIJING – He was no K-pop star but Ambassador Kang Chol got the full-on paparazzi treatment even on board his flight out of Malaysia following his expulsion.
After stoically going through the media crush at the KL International Airport, the envoy found himself still under the spotlight as he took his seat on MH360 bound for Beijing.
He was his stolid self throughout the six-hour flight on Monday night, not entertaining attempts by press members on board to engage him.
Earlier, when the North Korean ambassador, who was declared persona non grata (person not appreciated) in Malaysia, approached the departure gate, other passengers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him. A man was heard shouting: “Keluar (Get out of) Malaysia!”
Escorted by a large group of policemen and plainclothes officers, Kang Chol and his family got priority to board before other fellow economy-class passengers.
The police had to fend off passengers – presumably journalists – taking photos and videos of Kang Chol, who was sandwiched between his wife, who sat by the aisle, and their five-year-old granddaughter, in the middle row.
A man, originally seated next to Kang Chol’s granddaughter, was switched to another section of the cabin for defying police orders despite repeated stern warnings.
A stony-faced Kang Chol merely watched as the police interfered, unfazed by the paparazzi treatment.
The police left the aircraft shortly before takeoff, and the cabin crew took over the duty of keeping the envoy away from prying eyes.
Mid-flight, when Kang Chol’s wife went to the lavatory, a Japanese reporter took over her seat in the hope of interviewing him.
But the 64-year-old was impassive and kept mum. He also did not try to make the journalist return to his seat.
The cabin crew then politely requested the man to leave Kang Chol alone.
Kang Chol, wearing a dark suit and yellow tie, looked as if he was just taking a trip with his family. He filled up their arrival forms and watched the in-flight entertainment without putting on the headphones.
His wife, with the cabin pillow propped behind her neck, watched his screen while the little girl was into cartoons.
When the aircraft finally touched down here, the passengers were instructed to remain seated until the green light was given.
For a moment, the atmosphere within was tense but everyone cooperated, fully aware of the special diplomat in their midst.
But they were soon allowed to disembark, and Kang Chol, who was pulling two carry-ons, and his family were greeted by North Korean officials at the end of the aerobridge.
He ignored journalists’ requests for comments and was ushered into a lift. A Chinese police officer was on hand to keep the media at bay.
There is no direct air link between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang, and Beijing is the preferred stop for a connecting flight.
Yesterday, local and foreign media gathered in front of the North Korean embassy in Ritan North Road, here as early as 9am, although there was no indication that Kang Chol or any embassy officials would speak to the press.
Local police soon arrived to cordon off an area for the journalists.
Kang Chol’s expulsion came at the height of a diplomatic row between both countries over the investigation into the murder of Kim Jong-nam at KLIA2 on Feb 13.