Year after Kim’s killing, suspected masterminds evade trial

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – Lost in the glare of North Korea’s missile launches, rhetorical battles with Washington and charm offensive at the Winter Olympics, two women stand accused of a crime that could send them to the gallows – the stunning assassination of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother.

It’s a crime the young Southeast Asian women almost certainly had a part in — possibly without even knowing it.

But just as certainly, the slaying of Kim Jong Nam one year ago yesterday must have required a bigger cast of characters. People who could do the meticulous planning, procure the deadly and exotic poison and carefully wait for the exact moment to act so no one would die other than the unwitting target in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Masterminds, in other words. Professional killers.

And those suspects are all long gone.

Kim Jong Nam, left, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

Instead, the sole defendants in one of the highest-profile political hits in decades are Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong, 29, of Vietnam.

Both are accused of smearing the VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face last February 13. The poison, developed for military use, is so potent that Kim was dead within two hours.

From the start of their trial last October, the women, who before getting caught up in the assassination plot left rural poverty to work in Southeast Asia’s nightlife scene, have claimed they were duped into playing what they thought was a harmless prank for a hidden-camera show. They face a mandatory death sentence by hanging if convicted.

Lawyers for the women say their defence has been handicapped by a sloppy investigation and by the very conspicuous absence of the suspected North Korean masterminds.

“As long as the North Korean suspects are away, the actual truth will never be proven. I sincerely believe that the girls should be acquitted because we have clearly shown that they are being used as scapegoats,” said Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Soon Seng.

Both the prosecution and defence agree the women could not have been acting entirely on their own, and that the crime was carried out as part of a plot by a group of North Korean agents who recruited, trained and supplied them with the VX nerve agent.

The prosecution even has a pretty good idea who the suspected masterminds are.

Four North Korean suspects were seen on airport security cameras discarding their belongings and changing their clothing after the attack.

The North Korean Embassy has also been implicated with an embassy official helping get flights out for the four men, and using the name of one of its citizens to buy a car that was used to take the suspects to the airport.

But Malaysian police and prosecutors have shied away from attaching any political motive to the killing.