Lost in the glare of North Korea’s missile launches, rhetorical battles with Washington and charm offensive at the Winter Olympics, two women stand accused of a crime that could send them to the gallows — the stunning assassination of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother.
It’s a crime the young Southeast Asian women almost certainly had a part in — possibly without even knowing it.
But just as certainly, the slaying of Kim Jong Nam one year ago Tuesday must have required a bigger cast of characters. People who could do the meticulous planning, procure the deadly and exotic poison and carefully wait for the exact moment to act so no one would die other than the unwitting target in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Masterminds, in other words. Professional killers.
And those suspects are all long gone.
Instead, the sole defendants in one of the highest-profile political hits in decades are Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong, 29, of Vietnam. Both are accused of smearing the VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face last Feb. 13. The poison, developed for military use, is so potent that Kim was dead within two hours.
From the start of their trial last October, the women, who before getting caught up in the assassination plot left rural poverty to work in Southeast Asia’s nightlife scene, have claimed they were duped into playing what they thought was a harmless prank for a hidden-camera show. They face a mandatory death sentence by hanging if convicted.
Lawyers for the women say their defense has been handicapped by a sloppy investigation and by the very conspicuous absence of the suspected North Korean masterminds.
“As long as the North Korean suspects are away, the actual truth will never be proven. I sincerely believe that the girls should be acquitted because we have clearly shown that they are being used as scapegoats,” said Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Soon Seng.
Both the prosecution and defense agree the women could not have been acting entirely on their own, and that the crime was carried out as part of a plot by a group of North Korean agents who recruited, trained and supplied them with the VX nerve agent.
The prosecution even has a pretty good idea who the suspected masterminds are.
Four North Korean suspects were seen on airport security cameras discarding their belongings and changing their clothing after the attack. The North Korean Embassy has also been implicated with an embassy official helping get flights out for the four men, and using the name of one of its citizens to buy a car that was used to take the suspects to the airport.
But Malaysian police and prosecutors have shied away from attaching any political motive to the killing.
Malaysian officials have never officially accused Pyongyang of involvement in Kim’s death. Instead, they have focused narrowly on simply proving the women’s guilt. Prosecutors contend the two knew they were handling poison, citing security camera footage showing them rushing to the washroom and holding their hands away from their bodies after the attack.
“The Malaysian government wants it all to go away by trying to rush the trial and end it,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “Once everything is under the bridge, which will take years, Malaysia and North Korea will likely resume normal relations. The Kim Jong Nam case will be just another footnote in history.”
Kim, 46, was the eldest son of former North Korea leader Kim Jong Il and was once seen as the potential heir in the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding.
He had fallen out of favor and had been living abroad as the actual heir Kim Jong Un solidified his powerbase. But while Kim Jong Nam was not an obvious political threat, he may have been seen as a potential rival to his brother.
A police witness told the court last month that Kim met with an unidentified Korean-American man at a Malaysian resort island four days before he was killed. The policeman was asked by defense lawyers about a Japanese newspaper report that the man was a U.S. intelligence agent based in Bangkok and that the meeting might have been one of the reasons why Pyongyang decided to silence Kim.
To bolster the theory, the court heard about forensics analysis of Kim’s laptop that showed some data had been accessed from a USB drive inserted into the laptop on the day of the meeting. Kim was also carrying $138,000 in cash when he was killed.
Close ties between Malaysia and North Korea have badly frayed since the killing.
While it isn’t one of North Korea’s key diplomatic partners, Malaysia had been one of the few places in the world where North Koreans could previously travel without a visa, providing a quiet destination for North Koreans looking for jobs, schools and business deals.
Malaysian officials have hinted since the assassination about ending diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and chided the regime over its nuclear ambitions.
For now, North Korea still maintains its embassy in an upscale suburb in Kuala Lumpur. But it has refused to cooperate with Malaysian authorities investigating the case and accused Malaysia of conniving with its enemies. Both countries withdrew their ambassadors and ended visa-free travel for each other’s citizens. North Korea blocked nine Malaysians from leaving the country and Malaysia responded in kind, barring North Koreans from exiting its soil.
As part of a deal to end the diplomatic row, Malaysia returned Kim’s body and three suspects hiding in the North Korean Embassy to Pyongyang in exchange for the nine Malaysians just weeks after the killing.
The trial resumes on Feb. 22, with prosecutors expected to rest their case by April or early May.
If the judge finds there is no case against the women, they will be freed. If he rules otherwise, the defense will be called and the trial will continue for several more months. An appeal to higher courts could add several more years.