Members of a Malaysian youth group call for peace and diplomatic cooperation between Malaysia and North Korea outside the gates of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur on March 10, 2017 after the murder of Kim Jong-nam at the capital's international airport. Photo: AFP/ Suwanrumpha
Members of a Malaysian youth group call for peace and diplomatic cooperation between Malaysia and North Korea outside the gates of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur on March 10, 2017 after the murder of Kim Jong-nam at the capital's international airport. Photo: AFP/ Suwanrumpha

The trial of two women charged with assassinating the North Korean leader’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam has raised as many questions as proceedings have so far answered about a bizarre crime few independent observers doubt Pyongyang ordered and executed.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28, are charged with murdering Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur International airport in February by smearing his face with a highly toxic VX nerve agent. Four suspects on the lam mentioned in the prosecution’s charge sheet are presumed to be North Koreans who have fled the country.

Raja Subramaniam, a Malaysian government chemist, has testified he found around 1.4 times the lethal dosage of VX nerve agent on the victim’s body and detected the substance on the clothes both women wore on the day of the attack. Experts have been confounded at how the women managed to handle the chemical without causing harm to themselves.

Four North Koreans are widely believed to have arranged and coordinated the hit, including the recruitment, handling and providing the chemical components of nerve agent to the two accused women. VX is a controlled substance banned by international treaties and classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.

The women, both from rural backgrounds who lived precariously as undocumented migrant workers in the Malaysian capital, pleaded not guilty on the opening day of the trial earlier this month. Both say they were duped by their handlers into believing they were participating in a prank for a reality TV show that saw them smearing lotion and tomato sauce on the faces of strangers.

Kim Jong-nam (left) had spoken out publicly against his family’s dynastic control of the isolated nuclear-armed nation, while Kim Jong-un had reportedly issued a “standing order” for his half-brother’s assassination in 2012. Photo: AFP

Though Malaysian authorities initially withheld their names, the four presumably North Korean suspects were identified to the court during the second week of the trial. For unclear reasons, investigators have not confirmed whether the accused were North Koreans or whether they were the same four people who Malaysian police said left Kuala Lumpur on the day of the killing.

While Malaysian police acknowledged the flight of four people suspected of organizing the lethal poisoning, other North Korean citizens of interest and diplomatic staff were permitted to exit the country in a subsequent deal with Pyongyang to ease a tense diplomatic row between the two countries. Kim Jong-nam’s body was also returned to Pyongyang after an autopsy was concluded.

Defense lawyers have blamed Malaysian authorities of compromising the proceedings by allowing the North Korean suspects to flee the country. The same lawyers had previously cast doubt on the fairness of the trial and expressed concerns over the prosecution’s desire to secure any sort of conviction in the high-profile case, presumably to avoid rekindling the earlier diplomatic spat.

“We believe the main suspects are the four North Koreans that have left the country. If we were able to arrest them, everything would be as clear as daylight,” said Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, in remarks to reporters after a pre-trial hearing in July. The two women face a mandatory death sentence if convicted.

Lead state prosecutor Muhamad Iskandar Ahmad, on the other hand, said the women’s actions showed their “intention to kill” and argued they both understood they were handling poison. Closed circuit television recordings, however, show Vietnamese national Hoang rushing to the toilet with a look of panic and her hands held away from her body after slathering the substance on Kim’s face.

Vietnamese murder suspect Doan Thi Huong arrives at the Department of Chemistry in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Defense teams claim the North Koreans told the women to wash off the liquid without informing them what it was. VX can be safely removed by washing and scrubbing with water within 15 minutes of contact, according to the government chemist’s testimony.

Video recordings screened in court showed the women accompanied by the still at large suspects before the poisoning took place.

The four North Koreans are believed to have boarded flights out of Kuala Lumpur on the morning of the incident and travelled on a circuitous journey through Jakarta, Dubai and Russia before returning to Pyongyang.

US officials and South Korean intelligence believe the assassination was orchestrated by North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, a charge Pyongyang has denied despite its established history of transnational assassinations and espionage.

According to US intelligence reports released by Wikileaks, Kim Jong-nam, based in Macau since the early 2000s, enjoyed well-established ties with the Chinese government. His killing may have been motivated by the belief that a foreign government could utilize him to replace his half-brother – whom he apparently never met – as a political figurehead who shares the Kim family bloodline.

Then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with his son Kim Jong-nam in 1981. Photo: AFP

Kim is said to have possessed US$120,000 at the time of his death, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which carried reports claiming he met with a US intelligence agent at a hotel in Malaysia just four days before his death. Malaysian authorities believe he may have been paid by the US for information, the reports claimed.

Bloomberg reported that Malaysian authorities found four bundles of US$100 bills tied together in stacks in his bag. Kim Jong-nam travelled on a North Korean diplomatic passport under the name ‘Kim Chol’, enabling him to enter and leave the country without his luggage being thoroughly searched.

Kim Jong-nam kept a very low profile but was known to be publicly critical of his younger half-brother’s ascension. Family and political affairs mixed again when Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, was recently promoted as an alternate member of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s politburo, a move seen as further consolidating the reclusive leader’s inner circle.

Kim Yo-jong became vice-director of the party’s propaganda and agitation department in late 2014 and is the second woman to be made a politburo member after Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of deceased former supreme leader Kim Jong Il and wife of Jang Song-thaek, who was executed in 2013 after being accused of corruption and plotting a coup d’etat.

Kim Kyong-hui has not been seen in public since. Kim Yo-jong’s meteoric ascent “shows that her portfolio and writ is far more substantive than previously believed and it is a further consolidation of the Kim family’s power,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with his sister Kim Yo-Jong (L) in a 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS 

The changes are seen as a generational shift within the top leadership, part and parcel of the supreme leader’s efforts to make a clean break with those who surrounded his father Kim Jong-il, according to analysts. Kim Yo-jong, believed to be in her late 20s, is now one of the two most visible women in North Korean public life, alongside the supreme leader’s wife, Ri Sol-ju.

North Korea has never acknowledged the deceased Kim Jong-nam as Kim Jong-un’s half-brother. Yet his assassination sparked a diplomatic row that saw Pyongyang accuse Malaysia, one of its few diplomatic partners, of working with Seoul and other “hostile forces.” Both countries recalled their ambassadors and barred diplomats from leaving during the short-lived spat.

Though the two sides reached a settlement, distrust remains with Malaysia now under heavy pressure from US President Donald Trump to clamp down on Malaysia-North Korea business ties to further isolate Pyongyang. Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry recently announced that it is now considering to close its embassy in the North Korean capital.

“We may or may not sever ties with North Korea,” according to Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, who said his ministry had filed recommendation papers for the Malaysian embassy in Beijing to be accredited to handle North Korean affairs.

Malaysia recently announced a travel ban against its citizens visiting North Korea, citing Pyongyang’s missile tests and related developments for the restriction. In that context, it’s highly unlikely Pyongyang would consider any Malaysian request to send the four presumed North Korean suspects in Kim Jong-nam’s murder to Malaysia to stand trial.

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