Women Accused of Killing Kim Jong-Nam Could Be Freed

Intrigue and mystery surround the murder of Kim Jong-un's half brother, Kim Jong-nam. What really happened that day at KLIA?
Tuesday 31 July 2018
Vietnamese defendant Doan Thi Huong with a police escort at the Malaysian Chemistry Department in Petaling Jaya. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

[Update 16/8/18]

Two women accused of murdering the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could walk free Thursday, if a judge decides there’s not enough evidence to proceed with their trial.

Kim Jong Nam died in February last year after Siti Aisyah of Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam allegedly wiped his face with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

If found guilty, the women could face the death penalty.

Lawyers for Aisyah and Doan claim the two are innocent. They say the women were duped by a group of North Koreans into thinking they were participating in a prank television show and thought the liquid was harmless.

The two women have been described by friends and family as simple, well-meaning women who had expressed interest in acting jobs. Aisyah’s father claimed his daughter was used and “never would have done such a thing” in an interview with CNN in October.

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Indonesian defendant Siti Aisyah is escorted by police following her appearance at the Malaysian Chemistry Department in Petaling Jaya. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

According to authorities in Malaysia, the supposed TV producers were North Korean agents, four of whom have been charged in relation to Kim’s murder but have since left the country.

Prosecutors say the women knew what they were doing, and had practiced the planned attack by smearing liquid on strangers in a nearby public places.

Defense lawyers say the women thought they were participating in a prank TV show, and were paid for earlier pranks as part of the job.

They also argue the investigation against their clients has been shoddy and biased, which prosecutors deny.

Speaking to CNN shortly after the incident, a friend of Aisyah’s described her as friendly but naive. Aisyah had gone out and partied the night before the killing to celebrate her birthday.

“And now the person next to me will become a (celebrity),” one friend says in a video filmed that night, prompting Aisyah to laugh. It’s unclear the friend knew about Aisyah’s purported work in reality TV.

The prosecution completed its closing arguments in June, and Judge Azmi Ariffin is set to decide Thursday if the authorities have provided sufficient evidence to support their claims.

If he finds in their favour, the trial will continue and the defense will present their case. If he rules against the prosecution however, Aisyah and Doan could walk free, though that decision could still be appealed to a higher court.

In interviews with CNN, attorneys for both the defendants have expressed cautious optimism their clients could be freed this week.

But Malaysian legal experts said it’s unlikely the case will end Thursday – the judge will presumably want to hear what Aisyah and Doan have to say, as the two women have not yet taken the stand or been given the chance to defend themselves.

Ariffin could also decide the women are innocent of murder, but guilty of a lesser crime such as causing death by negligence or culpable homicide, experts say.

Source: Joshua Berlinger/CNN-Wire

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Half brothers Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-un. Photo: Getty Images

Before Lee Hsien Loong hosted Donald Trump at the Singapore Summit that began the “normalisation” of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, relations between North Korea and the rest of the world, particularly the US, had become increasingly tense.

Nuclear missile testing by North Korea seemed to confirm that it had developed nuclear weapon capability.

Even relations with one of its closest allies, Malaysia, was at its lowest ebb. Malaysia was the rare country whose citizens were permitted to enter North Korea visa-free; North Korean students are sent to Malaysia and their workers work in mining and construction.

Relations have been described as ‘cosy’ until, that is, the murder of a Korean man in Kuala Lumpur.

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The scene of the crime: investigators wearing protective suits at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 26, 2017. Photo: Getty Images

A paunchy middle-aged man stood at a self check-in kiosk at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on the morning of 13 February 2017. The name on his passport said ‘Kim Chol’ (the equivalent of John Smith) but this 46-year-old was no ordinary Korean tourist.

Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, the product of a liaison between his father and an actress.

Said to be despised by his grandfather Kim Il-sung, he grew up outside North Korea and was sent to school in Switzerland.

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Kim Jong-nam putative heir to Kim Jong-il as a little boy dressed in an army uniform poses with his maternal grandmother in January 1975. Photo: Getty Images

Jong-nam was once seen as the dynastic heir, until he fell out of favour attempting to enter Japan using a fake Dominican Republic passport bearing the name “Pang Xiong” (“Fat Bear”), confessing nothing more sinister than a desire to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

His half-brother Jong-un became leader after their father died in 2011. Jong-nam derisively called Jong-un a “joke to the outside world”.

He was a vocal critic of the North Korean regime whilst living a lavish lifestyle in Macau.

The video of his attack went viral on YouTube. At the busy airport, a young woman slipped up from behind him, covered his eyes with her hands, wiped her hands over his mouth, leaving an oily smudge, and disappeared into the crowd.

A few seconds later, another woman threw her arms over his shoulders, rubbed her hands across his face, and ran off in the opposite direction of the first woman.

The oily liquid was VX nerve agent, a lethal rapid-acting poison that cripples the nervous system, causing paralysis and eventual death by suffocation. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention calls VX “the most potent of all nerve agents.” It is a banned chemical substance classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction.

Jong-nam headed to the information desk to report the attack, complaining that he was in great pain.

His condition rapidly worsened.

Struggling to breathe, his eyes rolled upwards, he suffered a seizure and within 20 minutes had lost consciousness. It was an excruciating death.

Strangely, 12 vials of atropine, an antidote for VX, was found in his sling bag but he did not reach for it. In his bag was US$120,000 in cash.

Jong-nam had reportedly met a US intelligence agent at a hotel room in Langkawi, four days before his death. It is speculated that he was spying and had received a payoff for information following the secret meeting.

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Vietnamese defendant Doan Thi Huong (right) and Indonesian defendant Siti Aishah (left) are escorted by police personnel. Photo: Getty Images

The two women who were involved in the brazen airport attack – Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 29 – are on trial for the murder of Kim Jong-nam.

If convicted, they face the death penalty.

Both women maintain their innocence, claiming they did not know they were participating in a deadly attack. Both reportedly sex workers looking for extra income, they believed they were carrying out a prank for a “hidden-camera” TV show.

Prosecutors claim that the two women are trained assassins who knew exactly where and how to apply the poison. Further, their unsmiling faces caught on CCTV prove that their claim of being duped into a prank is false.

They were recruited by four North Korean men who were posing as TV producers. The four are believed to be North Korean agents later identified as Hong Song Hac, Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam, and O Jong Gil, and were all at the airport on the morning of the attack.

The four men, believed to have orchestrated the assassination and supplied the poison to the two women, fled the country on the same day of the killing. They have been charged with murder, but remain at large.

South Korea’s intelligence agencies allege that Jong-nam’s open criticism had prompted Kim Jong-un to issue a standing order for his execution.

North Korea has vehemently denied any role in the killing.

It has been almost one and a half years since Jong-nam’s assassination. The trial of Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong is ongoing. The women are possibly scapegoats, akin to drug mules, caught in a web of deception and political intrigue.

What is clear is that the prank played on Jong-nam proved that Jong-un was certainly “No joke to the outside world”.

As an international crisis brewed, the world became a more dangerous place as Kim Jong-un proved that not only had he developed nuclear missiles within striking distance of the US, he also had chemical weapons that he could unleash anywhere in the world.

Additional research by Zoe Phoon.

Related: What Went Down at the North Korean Summit in Singapore