Two Southeast Asian women on trial for the February 2017 murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, were ordered today by a High Court in Malaysia to mount a defense against prosecution claims, dashing certain hopes that the accused would be acquitted and released on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Trial judge Azmi Ariffin ruled that the prosecution had proven a prima facie case against Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 26, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 29, both of whom had pleaded “not guilty” when their trial opened last October. The pair, who are the only suspects in custody in connection with the killing by poison, face a mandatory death sentence if convicted.

The Malaysian judge could not rule out the possibility of a “well-planned conspiracy” between the two women and several North Korean operatives still at large, suggesting the accused had a common intention to carry out the killing. The order will extend the closely watched trial, which is set to resume in November with Siti as its first witness.

“We are deeply disappointed with the ruling,” said Gooi Soon Seng, Siti’s lawyer, in remarks to reporters. “It doesn’t mean the court has found them guilty. The court wants to hear their version,” he said. Doan also intends to testify in court, though it is unclear when she will do so.

Gooi had previously described the investigation as “shoddy” and “lopsided”, but maintained his client would be acquitted because the prosecution had ultimately failed to establish a clear motive for the murder. The defense phase of the trial is now expected to proceed over several months.

Kim was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur International airport last year before boarding a flight to Macau. Security footage appears to show the women accosting him, with one smearing his face with a substance investigators believe to be the toxic nerve agent VX, a banned substance classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.

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

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.

The women, both from rural backgrounds who lived precariously as undocumented migrant workers in the Malaysian capital, say they were duped by their North Korean 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 in exchange for cash.

State prosecutors, who made their closing arguments in June based on testimony from 34 witnesses, argue that the pair were well-trained assassins who knew exactly what they were doing. The women’s defense teams maintain that they are merely scapegoats, pinning the blame on the four North Korean fugitives who supplied the lethal chemical agent.

Prosecutors allege that Doan’s behavior after the incident – security footage shows her rushing to the washroom with her hands held away from her body – indicates that she was, in fact, aware of handling a dangerous substance. Judge Azmi said Doan’s actions were “very strange” and determined the two women’s conduct did not constitute a “prank.”

Defense lawyers for the women had blamed Malaysian authorities of compromising the proceedings by allowing the main North Korean suspects to flee the country, casting doubt on the fairness of the trial. The same lawyers say the prosecution is desperate to secure any sort of conviction in the high-profile case, one that has garnered intense international attention.

(FILES) This file photo taken on October 24, 2017 Vietnamese defendant Doan Thi Huong (R) and Indonesian defendant Siti Aishah (2nd L) are escorted by Malaysian police personnel at the low-cost carrier Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 in Sepang during a visit to the scene of the murder as part of the Shah Alam High Court trial process for their alleged role in the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam.The two women accused of assassinating the half-brother of North Korea's leader in a brazen hit that shocked the world face a key court ruling on August 16, with their families hopeful they will be acquitted and return home. / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN
Vietnamese defendant Doan Thi Huong (R) and Indonesian defendant Siti Aishah (2nd L) are escorted by Malaysian police during a visit to the scene of the murder. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Some experts believe that letting the killing go unpunished by failing to secure a conviction could tarnish Malaysia’s reputation. Prosecuting and executing the women, however, could complicate Malaysia’s ties with Indonesia and Vietnam, where the pair are widely seen as innocents who were deceived into committing a crime.

Pyongyang hasn’t cooperated with the investigation and has ignored Interpol notices to detain the four accused suspects. North Korea has never acknowledged the deceased – 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.

Kim Jong-nam was only referred to as “a citizen of the DPRK” by North Korean officials. His killing sparked a short-lived diplomatic row that saw both countries recall their ambassadors and bar diplomatic staff from leaving. Pyongyang’s state media then accused Malaysia, one of the North’s few legitimate diplomatic partners, of working with Seoul and “hostile forces.”

Pyongyang eventually reached an agreement with the previous Najib Razak-led government that saw Kim’s body repatriated. Two other North Koreans suspected of involvement in the killing were also allowed to return home. Ties remained frosty for the remainder of Najib’s tenure as he clamped down on Malaysia-North Korea business ties.

Two-way trade between Malaysia and North Korea was just US$4 million in 2016, according to official Malaysian figures. The two sides have a decades-long trade in consumer goods, vehicles, refined oil, natural rubber and palm oil. Pyongyang had also been suspected of operating officially tolerated shell companies in Kuala Lumpur to facilitate global trade.

Under Najib’s watch, Malaysia deported North Korean workers and halted all imports from the country in accordance with United Nations’ resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang, as well as US efforts by the Donald Trump administration to economically pressure the isolated Northeast Asian country.

A member of the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's ruling coalition, holds a placard at a protest at the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
An activist holds a placard at a protest at the North Korea embassy following the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Newly-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has since signaled a desire to normalize ties with North Korea, telling reporters that he aimed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reinstate a visa-free travel arrangement shortly after North Korea leader Kim Jong-un met US President Trump in Singapore at a landmark summit on June 12.

“I think we would like to look positively at the change in the attitude of North Korea,” Malaysia’s premier said in an interview with Kyodo News, in which he called Kim’s killing a “simple case of murder.” He called for the law to take its course and said Malaysia could not “break off relations” with Pyongyang without direct proof of who ordered the killing.

Malaysia’s embassy in Pyongyang has not been staffed since April last year following the diplomatic spat. Najib’s government, which had condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, was considering a move to permanently close the embassy and relocate diplomatic services to its Beijing mission.

As the trial into Kim’s killing continues with the suspected masterminds in absentia beyond the reach of investigators, it is unlikely that any such direct proof could be established, raising the prospect that no one will be convicted in a bizarre incident that has prompted far more questions than answers.

Kim, who was 45 at the time of his death, had been based in Macau since the early 2000s and enjoyed well-established ties with the Chinese government, according to US intelligence reports. He kept a very low-profile but was known to be publicly critical of his younger half-brother’s ascension in email exchanges published in a book by Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi.

Reports claim he met an American national, possibly an intelligence agent, during a trip to Langkawi Island, a tourist destination off Malaysia’s west coast, days before being killed. He was believed to be in possession of large amounts of cash. Bloomberg reported that four bundles of US$100 bills were found in his bag.

A Malaysian forensics analysis of a laptop found in Kim’s backpack showed that data had been accessed from a USB pen drive inserted into the laptop during his meeting in Langkawi, prompting speculation that Kim had sold sensitive data on the North Korean leadership to US intelligence, an act that may have sealed his fate.