It was a bizarre, brazen attack in broad day light. Two women – 25-year-old Indonesian Siti Aisyah and 29-year-old Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong – are accused of accosting and smearing the deadly VX nerve agent onto the face of a male passenger in a crowded departure hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13, 2017.
The victim, who carried a North Korean passport bearing the name Kim Chol, was later identified as 46-year-old Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He suffered seizures and died within two hours of the attack.
The women claim they had been duped into thinking that they were participating in a harmless hidden-camera prank for TV.
They were purportedly recruited and prepped by four North Korean men posing as Chinese and Japanese TV producers. Prior to the attack, the men had allegedly conducted test runs with them in hotels, shopping malls and the airport, for which the women were promised between $100 (€85) and $200 (€170) per “act.” The four fled Malaysia shortly after the murder, and are now on Interpol’s red list.
Aisyah and Doan, whose trial began last October, have both pleaded not guilty of murder. They face the death penalty, if convicted.
Here is a brief introduction to the various actors involved in the case:
Kim Jong Nam
“Acute VX nerve agent poisoning” was ruled as the sole cause of his death. Classified as a weapon of mass destruction (and allegedly part of North Korea’s chemical weapons stockpile), traces of VX were found on Kim Jong Nam’s face and in his eyes, blood, urine and clothing, and had damaged several of his vital organs. Medical experts handling the case testified that the fastest absorption would have been through the eye mucus and that once VX entered the bloodstream, “there is a very slim chance of survival.”
Police testified that Kim Jong Nam had been carrying four diplomatic passports under the name Kim Chol, and $100,000. Curiously, his backpack also contained 12 vials of atropine, a poison antidote, which was confirmed by toxicologists.
The firstborn and illegitimate son of former leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam had been living in exile in Macau after falling out of favor with his father. He had previously criticized his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea. South Korean intelligence agencies allege that this criticism had prompted his half-brother, Kim Jong Un, to issue a standing order for his execution.
North Korea has vehemently denied any involvement in his murder.
Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong
Both Aisyah and Doan reportedly eked out a living as social escorts in Kuala Lumpur.
Traces of VX were found on their clothes and belongings, and on Doan’s fingernails. CCTV footage showed both women heading for separate restrooms after the attack, holding their hands away from themselves. The prosecution says this indicated they knew they were handling a toxic substance.
Defense lawyers, however, argued that they were merely following the North Koreans’ instructions. Furthermore, the fact that the women didn’t flee the country nor discard their tainted clothing, suggests that they were clueless about the deadliness of their actions, the defense has argued.
Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Soon-seong told reporters that traces of VX on the women were not enough to convict them. “If I have the knife, it doesn’t mean I killed the person. They must have other stronger evidence,” he said.
The mystery men
Aisyah and Doan had previously only known the four North Korean men by their pseudonyms: Mr. Chang, Mr. Y, Hanamori and James. They were later identified in court as Hong Song Hac, Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam, and O Jong Gil respectively, and they were all at the airport on the morning of the attack.
Malaysian police testified that Hanamori (also known as “Grandpa”) had masterminded the attack, while Aisyah and Doan had been seen meeting with Mr. Chang and Mr. Y who had reportedly applied the liquid onto the women’s hands shortly before they attacked Kim Jong Nam.
Police say they couldn’t arrest the four men as “the suspects used assumed names and there were no identifying details such as passport or telephone numbers.” The four were also caught on camera wearing different clothes after the attack, and meeting up with North Korean embassy official Hyong Kwang Song and Air Koryo employee Kim Uk Il elsewhere in the airport before they fled Malaysia.
Three more suspects dodged police questioning by seeking refuge at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur. One is a potential key witness for Aisyah’s defense. They were later allowed to return to North Korea in exchange for nine Malaysian diplomatic corps staff and their families who were previously barred from leaving North Korea.
Besides being heard at the Shah Alam High Court just outside Kuala Lumpur, the trial had also been temporarily moved to a high-security lab for all parties to view the defendants’ clothes and other articles tainted with VX, as well as to the airport where the defendants retraced their steps of the day of the murder.
Notably, the victim and the four suspects at large have been referred to in court and by all parties only by their assumed names and without mention of their North Korean ties.
Prosecutors have so far focused on proving the women’s guilt, while Malaysian officials have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized.
Shad Saleem Faruqi, a law professor at the Kuala Lumpur-based University of Malaya, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying, “The question of who (the victim) is related to is only relevant when trying to determine the motive, but it’s up to the prosecutors if they want to avoid having to prove a conspiracy involving the head of state of a foreign government.”
“The broader you cast the net, the more difficult your job becomes,” he added.
Defense lawyers have said the real culprits had already left Malaysia, and maintain that their clients were tricked into carrying out the attack, therefore lacking the intention to kill – the crux in establishing both Aisyah’s and Doan’s innocence.
“The prosecution’s whole case is based only on the CCTV recordings and the VX found on the two women – basically showing that their actions led to the victim’s death.
“But we still don’t know what motive these women had (for killing him),” he told reporters during a break in today’s hearing.
Following the resumption of the trial, the defense is expected to question the lead police investigator about the role of North Korean chemist Ri Jong Chol (one of the three who sought refuge at the North Korean embassy) who was detained shortly after the killing but released due to lack of evidence.
Ri Jong Chol was the registered owner of the MPV that was used to transport Mr. Chang, Mr. Y and Hanamori after the fatal incident to the main departure hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Police investigations have also suggested that Ri Jong Chol’s home may have doubled up as a lab to produce the VX nerve agent.