The trial of two women accused of assassinating the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader commenced this week at the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28, are the only suspects in custody in a killing that South Korean intelligence officials have alleged was an elaborate plot coordinated by Pyongyang.

The pair are charged with murdering Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur International airport this February 13 by smearing his face with a highly toxic VX nerve agent, a chemical the United Nations classifies as a weapon of mass destruction.

Both women maintain their innocence and say they were duped by North Korean handlers into believing they were carrying out a prank for a reality TV show.

FILE PHOTO: Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (L) and Indonesian Siti Aishah are seen in this combination picture from undated handouts released by the Royal Malaysia Police to Reuters on February 19, 2017.  Royal Malaysia Police/Handout via Reuters/File Photo
Murder suspects Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (L) and Indonesian Siti Aishah (R). Photo: Royal Malaysia Police/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

Police acknowledged several North Koreans suspected of organizing the lethal poisoning had left Malaysia on the day of the attack, while others were permitted to exit in a subsequent diplomatic deal with Pyongyang.

Four North Korean suspects are accused alongside the women in the prosecution’s charge sheet as having common intent to kill Kim, though they remain at large and Malaysian authorities have for unclear reasons not released their names.

The two women suspects’ defense lawyers have already cast doubt on the fairness of the trial, complaining that Malaysian authorities had compromised the proceedings by allowing the North Korean suspects to leave the country.

The women’s lawyers urged the court to reveal the identities of the four other suspects, as well as airport closed circuit television recordings of the incident and any recorded statements that could serve as evidence of their involvement.

Judge Azmi Ariffin has refused the request, a move the suspects’ lawyers have claimed could be motivated by the prosecution’s desire to secure any sort of conviction in the high-profile case.

Lead prosecutor Muhamad Iskandar Ahmad intends to call 30 to 40 witnesses and 10 expert witnesses, including pathologists and chemists, to testify.

Both women pleaded not guilty on Monday’s opening day of the trial, which is expected to run until November 30. The women face a mandatory death sentence if convicted.

Kim Jong-nam arrives at Beijing airport in 2007. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
Kim Jong-nam arrives at Beijing airport in 2007. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

North Korea has never acknowledged the deceased Kim Jong-nam – who travelled on a diplomatic passport under the name ‘Kim Chol’ – as the half-brother of its supreme leader Kim Jong-un or as the eldest son of late leader Kim Jong-il. Officially he was only referred to as “a citizen of the DPRK.”

The assassination sparked a tense diplomatic row that saw both countries recall their ambassadors and bar diplomatic staff from leaving. Pyongyang’s state media maintained that one of its nationals died from a “heart stroke” and accused Malaysia, one of the North’s few legitimate diplomatic partners, of working with Seoul and other “hostile forces.”

North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur made repeated demands for Kim Jong-nam’s body and accused the Malaysian side of politicizing the autopsy and forensic examination. Pyongyang expelled Malaysia’s ambassador and barred three Malaysian embassy staff and six family members from leaving, prompting Malaysian premier Najib Razak to open negotiations.

Malaysia’s diplomats and their families were released unharmed within two weeks after Najib’s government agreed to repatriate Kim’s body and allow two North Koreans suspected of involvement in the assassination to return to Pyongyang. Both countries immediately thereafter lifted their reciprocal travel bans.

The incident brought North Korea’s relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) into new focus, prompting greater scrutiny of what some diplomats view as a permissive and accommodating stance toward Pyongyang. That openness, they say, has allowed Pyongyang to entrench its espionage and commercial networks across the region.

North Koreans Hyon Kwang-song (right) Kim Uk-il arrive in Beijing for a flight to North Korea. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
North Korean Hyon Kwang-song (R), second secretary at the North Korean Embassy in Malaysia, and Kim Uk-il (L), a North Korean state airline employee, arrive in Beijing in transit to North Korea after leaving Malaysia in a diplomatic deal. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

Malaysia-North Korea business ties have come under closer examination following the incident. The two sides have engaged for decades in a limited trade in consumer goods, vehicles, refined oil, natural rubber and palm oil. Pyongyang is also suspected of operating officially tolerated shell companies in Kuala Lumpur to facilitate trade.

Two-way trade between Malaysia and North Korea was just US$4 million in 2016, according to Malaysian official figures, though the figure obviously does not account for illicit business activities that are presumed to take place in a complex system of intermediaries across numerous Asian countries and financial centers.

Malaysia was previously the only nation whose citizens were permitted to travel to North Korea without a visa and once made efforts to expand ties with Pyongyang in fields of trade, culture and education. More recently, however, Malaysia has condemned North Korea’s missile tests and supported United Nations’ resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang.

Malaysia announced last week a fresh travel ban on its citizens visiting North Korea, citing Pyongyang’s missile tests and related developments for the restriction. The policy shift followed on Najib’s audience with US President Donald Trump last month at the White House, where the premier vowed to clamp down on Malaysia-North Korea business ties.

US President Donald Trump welcomes Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to the White House on September 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump welcomes Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to the White House on September 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Observers have speculated that Kim Jong-nam’s killing was 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.

Kim Jong-nam had been based in Macau since the early 2000s. The former Portuguese colony is believed to be a prominent financial and logistical base for North Korean trading companies that do business in international markets.

According to US intelligence reports released by Wikileaks, Kim Jong-nam was known to have well-established ties with China and was relied upon by “a loosely pro-China faction” in North Korea to facilitate China’s economic guidance and cooperation.

Analysts believe the pro-China faction had been largely eliminated following the 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, the current North Korean leader’s uncle-in-law, who was accused of corruption and plotting a coup d’etat.

Kim Jong-nam kept a very low-profile, but was known to be publicly critical of his younger half-brother’s ascension in email exchanges with Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi. His comments were published in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper and a subsequently released book.

Turning sour: Once-cordial ties with Malaysia rapidly worsened after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a file photo. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Kim Jong-nam later revealed that he had been warned directly by Pyongyang about his remarks and from that point he refrained from talking about politics. His 21-year-old son, Kim Han-sol, was similarly critical of the North Korean government in a 2012 Finnish television interview.

Following the lethal poisoning of his father, Kim Han-sol appeared in a 40-second video saying he was at a safe location with his mother and sister which appeared on the YouTube channel of the Cheollima Civil Defense, a group that assists North Korean defectors.

A recent Wall Street Journal report claimed that the US, China and the Netherlands provided Kim Han-sol’s next of kin with protection and travel assistance following his father’s killing by nerve agent, though representatives of the countries declined to comment.