Doan Thi Huong, the lone suspect held in connection with the February 2017 assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, is expected to walk free after pleading guilty to a lesser charge than murder in a Malaysian court.
A Malaysian judge today sentenced the 30-year-old Vietnamese national to three years and four months in jail for causing harm using dangerous means rather than murder, which under local law carries the death penalty by hanging.
Her legal team said that with usual sentence reductions for good behavior she would be released by “the first week” of May. Huong said she welcomed the “fair sentence” after the verdict was handed down in a case that involved the use of the lethal nerve agent VX.
Prosecutors offered the reduced charge after receiving representations from the Vietnamese embassy and the woman’s lawyers.
The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry reportedly stepped up lobbying efforts in recent weeks after prosecutors withdrew a similar murder charge against a second defendant, Indonesian national Siti Aisyah, last month.
Le Thi Thu Hang, a foreign ministry spokesperson, was quoted in Vietnamese media saying that officials from Hanoi have been in regular contact with Malaysian authorities “at the highest level to ensure a fair trial and freedom for Doan Thi Huong.”
Aisyah’s release on March 11 was largely attributed to a sustained high-level lobbying campaign by the Indonesian government, which included a personal appeal from President Joko Widodo to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The Indonesian embassy flew the 27-year-old to Jakarta on the same day that she was released.
Prosecutors sprung a surprise decision to drop the murder charge against Aisyah but later declined to do the same for Doan, who was seen sobbing and shaking violently in the dock when her appeal was rejected three days after her co-defendant walked free.
Vietnamese Ambassador to Malaysia Le Quy Quynh at the time expressed disappointment over the decision, saying Hanoi would push for her release “as soon as possible.”
Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s foreign minister, had even called his Malaysian counterpart with an unprecedented public request for her release.
Hanoi does not ordinarily get involved in overseas criminal cases involving its citizens, though Huong’s case had been followed closely by the country’s senior leaders and citizens.
Analysts previously said that Malaysia risked creating a rift with Hanoi if their citizen was not afforded similar treatment to that given to her Indonesian co-defendant.
So far no other suspects apart from the two women have faced charges for the high-profile killing.
Both women maintain their innocence and say they were duped by North Korean agents into believing they were participating in a prank for a hidden camera TV show that saw them smearing lotion on the faces of strangers in exchange for cash.
Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur International airport before he was due to board a flight to Macau.
Police quickly apprehended both women shortly after closed-circuit television cameras showed them accosting the 45-year-old North Korean in the airport terminal.
Security footage appears to show the women smearing his face with a substance investigators believed to be the toxic nerve agent VX.
The use of a banned chemical substance classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction immediately raised questions of state complicity. US officials and South Korean intelligence regard the killing as a political assassination orchestrated by North Korean operatives, an accusation that Pyongyang adamantly denies.
Four North Korean men who boarded flights out of Kuala Lumpur on the morning of the incident are still wanted over the murder and remain at large. It is unlikely that North Korea would ever repatriate the individuals who are believed to have supplied the banned chemical used in the killing to Malaysia to face trial.
The two women are widely viewed as scapegoats for a North Korean state-sponsored crime. Other North Korean citizens of interest and diplomatic staff were permitted to exit Malaysia in a subsequent deal with Pyongyang to ease a tense diplomatic row that had flared between the two countries over the incident.
North Korea had then accused 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.
Kim Jong Nam’s body was returned to Pyongyang after an autopsy was concluded as per the deal.
Defense lawyers for the women at the time said Malaysian authorities had compromised the proceedings by allowing the North Korean suspects to flee the country, who travelled on a circuitous journey through Jakarta, Dubai and Russia before returning to Pyongyang.
Video recordings show the women accompanied by the four men before the poisoning took place.
The incident brought North Korea’s relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) into harsh new focus, prompting scrutiny of a stance some diplomats had viewed as too permissive and accommodating. That openness is said to have enabled Pyongyang to entrench its espionage and commercial networks across the region.
North Korea has never acknowledged the deceased – who traveled on a diplomatic passport under the name “Kim Chol” – as the half-brother of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, or as the eldest son of late leader Kim Jong Il.
North Korean officials have only referred to Kim Jong Nam as “a citizen of the DPRK” and blamed his death on a heart attack.
Kim Jong Nam, who was once considered heir apparent to the North Korean leadership before falling out of favor, had been based in Macau since the early 2000s and kept a very low profile.
He was, however, publicly critical of his younger half-brother’s ascension to North Korea’s leadership and enjoyed well-established ties with the Chinese government, according to US intelligence reports.
Analysts believe 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.
The incident, however, has since largely faded from public view as North Korea’s push for wider diplomatic normalization, witnessed in Kim Jong Un’s recent summit meetings with US President Donald Trump.
Malaysia has never outright accused North Korea of complicity in the killing. Tensions have since appeared to ease, with Mahathir saying last year that Kuala Lumpur would reopen its embassy in Pyongyang, which has reportedly not been staffed since April 2017.