The two women suspected of murdering Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader, have pleaded not guilty at their trial in Malaysia.
The brazen nature of Kim Jong-nam’s killing, using the highly toxic VX nerve agent as he waited for a flight at Kuala Lumpur airport in February, shocked the world.
Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 29, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, are accused of rubbing the chemical on Kim Jong-nam’s face.
Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah say it was a TV prank and they were tricked by North Korean agents.
North Korea has denied any involvement in the killing, but in court prosecutors said that four men – believed to be four North Koreans who fled Malaysia on the day of murder – were also charged in the case.
The incident led to a bitter diplomatic row and strained the once cordial ties between North Korea and Malaysia, which expelled each other’s ambassadors.
The trial has been eight months in the making and the two women are the only suspects actually charged so far with the murder of Kim Jong-nam.
After the charges were read to them in court in Indonesian and Vietnamese, the two women entered their pleas through interpreters.
If found guilty, the women face the death penalty. Their defense lawyers are likely to argue that the real culprits are North Korean agents, who left Malaysia.
However, in his opening remarks, the prosecutor said he aims to prove that the women, along with four people still at large, had the “common intention” to kill Kim Jong-nam.
The prosecutor said the women had carried out practice runs in Kuala Lumpur shopping malls before the attack, under the “supervision” of the four people, who were not named in court.
Dozens of witnesses, including airport staff who came into contact with Kim Jong-nam, are expected to take the stand in the trial which will run for weeks.
The murder is notable for its sheer audacity, taking place as it did mid-morning in full view of security cameras at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.
On February 13, the two women were seen threading through crowds of people and accosting Kim Jong-nam, before rubbing their hands on his face.
Then there was the speed with which Kim Jong-nam died. Immediately after the attack he sought help from airport staff, who led him to a clinic, but he collapsed and died just minutes later.
After a post-mortem examination, Malaysian authorities announced Kim Jong-nam had been killed by VX, a toxin so lethal that it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations.
The two women, who were arrested days after the killing, have insisted that they were tricked by North Koreans into taking part in what they thought was a TV prank. Four North Korean men who fled Malaysia shortly after the incident are believed to suspects. In March, Interpol issued “red notices” for the North Koreans arrest.
Malaysia has named and questioned other North Koreans in relation to the case.
However, authorities also allowed three of them to leave the country in late March, in return for North Korea releasing nine Malaysian diplomats and their families.
Kim Jong-nam, who was in his mid-40s, was the estranged older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
At the time of his death, Kim Jong-nam was believed to have been living in self-imposed exile in Macau and was thought to have had some links to China.
“The body of the DPRK citizen who died in Malaysia and relevant DPRK citizens have returned to the DPRK today via Beijing,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said during a regular press briefing, using the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Three North Koreans who had been wanted for questioning have now been allowed to leave Malaysia, Malaysia’s chief of police said.
Image source Getty Images
“We have obtained whatever we wanted from them” and are “satisfied” with the statements, Khalid Abu Bakar said.
In the wake of Kim Jong-nam’s killing on February 13, Pyongyang reacted angrily when Malaysia refused to hand over the body immediately, without an autopsy.
Malaysian authorities said they had the right to conduct an autopsy as he had been killed on Malaysian soil, and that they would only release the body to Kim Jong-nam’s family.
On March 30, Malysian PM Najib Razak said a formal request had been received from the family, but gave no further details.
A day later, national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said “legally speaking, Kim Jong-un is the next-of-kin” but declined to say who the request had come from.
King Jong-nam’s own family previously lived in Macau but they are now thought to be in hiding.
His son Kim Han-sol appeared in a video earlier this month confirming he was with his mother and sister at an unspecified location.
Although Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of the former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un was passed over for the leadership and was living outside North Korea at the time of his father’s death.
Kuala Lumpur enacted a tit-for-tat exit ban on North Koreans.
Under the deal, the nine Malaysian nationals returned to Kuala Lumpur on March 31, where they were met by relatives.
They include Malaysia’s counselor to North Korea, Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain, embassy staff, and their families.
The exact circumstances of how the deal was struck remain unclear. PM Najib Razak described the negotiations as “challenging”.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman hailed the exchange as a success of diplomacy and “level-headedness”.
Reuters reported that TV footage showed two North Koreans on the flight to Beijing with the body: Hyon Kwang-song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk-il, a North Korean state airline employee.
The third was named Ri Ji-u, who had been holed up with them in the North Korean Embassy, Reuters quoted the chief of police as saying.
Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia are accused of smearing the nerve agent on Kim Jong-nam’s face while he was preparing to fly out of the budget airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Ri Jong-chol, who has lived in Malaysia for the last three years, was arrested four days later. Police did not provide details on why he had been detained.
On March 2, officials said Ri Jong-chol will be deported because he does not have valid travel documents.
Reuters reported that the North Korean held a work permit that was valid till February 6, 2017.
Diplomatic ties between North Korea and Malaysia were initiated in the 1970s, and as trade in resources such as palm oil and steel increased, North Korea eventually established an embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2003.
However, Kim Jong-nam’s death has converted this relationship into a full-blown diplomatic rift, with Malaysia even recalling its ambassador from Pyongyang.
In an escalating row over the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Malaysia has stepped up diplomatic measures against North Korea.
On February 13, Kim Jong-nam died in mysterious circumstances at an airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian police believe he was poisoned.
Malaysia has recalled its ambassador from the North Korea and has summoned the North Korean ambassador “to seek an explanation”.
Malaysian police say they are now looking for four North Korean suspects.
Meanwhile, a video which apparently shows CCTV footage of the attack on Kim Jong-nam has surfaced and aired on Japan’s TV.
Despite widespread speculation that North Korea was behind the killing, there has been no definitive evidence and Pyongyang has not issued an official statement yet.
On February 17, North Korean ambassador Kang Chol accused the government in Kuala Lumpur of colluding with “hostile forces”, saying that Malaysia had “something to conceal”.
South Korea has accused North Korea of orchestrating the incident, saying on February 20 it was evidence of North Korean “terrorism getting bolder”.
Malaysia was one of very few countries to maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea, but this killing has strained ties.
It has refused to accede to North Korean demands to release Kim’s body into their custody without an autopsy.
That apparently prompted the comments on February 17 by North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia – which provoked an angry response from the Malaysian foreign ministry.
It said his accusation was “baseless”, adding that it was their responsibility to conduct an investigation as Kim Jong-nam had died on Malaysian soil.
Malaysian authorities are now waiting for the results of its autopsy. Kang Chol said his country would reject the result as it was done without the presence of its representatives.
Malaysia has also refused to release Kim Jong-nam’s body, saying it needs to conduct DNA testing first.
Police are now seeking samples from family members. Kim Jong-nam is believed to have family living in Beijing and Macau.
Malaysian police have said that if there is no claim by next of kin and once they exhaust all avenues for DNA collection, they will hand the body over to the North Korean embassy.
Kim Jong-nam is believed to have been attacked in the Kuala Lumpur airport departure hall on Monday by two women, using some form of chemical.
Japan’s Fuji TV has aired grainy CCTV footage showing a man resembling Kim Jong-nam approached by a woman at the airport.
Another woman then quickly lunges from behind and wipes his face with a cloth. She is seen wearing a white top emblazoned with the letters “LOL”.
The man is then seen seeking assistance from airport staff while gesturing at his face, and is escorted to a room.
Two women, one Indonesian and one Vietnamese, were among the first to be arrested. The Indonesian, named as Siti Aisyah, is said to have told Malaysian police she had been paid to perform what she thought was a prank.
Four more North Korean suspects are hunted by Malaysian police in connection with the murder of Kim Jong-nam.
The men are said to have left Malaysia on February 13, the day the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was killed at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Four other people have already been detained.
Malaysian police believe poison was sprayed into Kim Jong-nam’s face as he waited to board a flight to Macau.
Deputy national police chief Noor Rashid Ismail identified the North Korean suspects in a press conference on February 19.
He said: “The four suspects are holding normal passports, not diplomatic passports.”
The four already in custody are an Indonesian woman, a Malaysian man, a woman with a Vietnamese passport and a North Korean.
The Indonesian national, named as Siti Aisyah, is said to have told Malaysian police she had been paid to perform what she thought was a prank.
Kim Jong-nam is believed to have been attacked in the airport departure hall on February 13 by two women, using some form of chemical.
A grainy image taken from security camera footage, which has been broadcast in South Korea and Malaysia, shows a woman wearing a white T-shirt with the letters “LOL” written on the front.
Despite widespread speculation that North Korea was behind the killing, there has been no proof. Pyongyang has made no public comments on the issue.
Kim Jong-nam was largely estranged from his family, after being passed over for the North Korean leadership in favor of his youngest half-brother. He spent most of his time overseas in Macau, mainland China and Singapore.