KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> Appearing calm and solemn, two young women accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader, were charged with murder today.
The women, who arrived at court under the protection of special forces wearing masks and carrying machine guns, are at the center of a bizarre killing at a busy Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. Many speculate the attack was orchestrated by North Korea, but Pyongyang denies any role.
Wearing a red T-shirt and blue jeans, Indonesian suspect Siti Aisyah nodded as her translator told her: “You are accused of murdering a North Korean man at the departure hall” of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
The other suspect, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, wore a yellow shirt and blue jeans and said “I understand” in English as the charge was read. She looked briefly at the public gallery as she was led out and bowed her head.
The women did not enter pleas because the magistrate court where they appeared has no jurisdiction over a murder case. Lead prosecutor Iskander Ahmad told the court he will ask for the case to be transferred to a higher court and for both women to be tried together.
They face a mandatory death sentence if convicted.
Kim Jong Nam was attacked as he waited for his flight home to Macau on Feb. 13. He died shortly after two women went up behind him and wiped something onto his face.
Both women have reportedly said they thought they were part of a prank TV show playing harmless tricks on unsuspecting passengers. Aisyah told authorities that she was paid the equivalent of $90.
Meanwhile, Kim’s corpse is at the center of a growing diplomatic battle between North Korea and Malaysia.
Speculation is rampant that North Korea was behind the killing, particularly after Malaysia said Friday that VX had killed Kim. Experts say the oily poison was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory.
On Monday, a high-level North Korean delegation arrived in Kuala Lumpur seeking custody of the body.
North Korea opposed Malaysian officials even conducting an autopsy, while Malaysia has resisted giving up the body without getting DNA samples and confirmation from next of kin.
The delegation includes Ri Tong Il, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who told reporters Monday outside the North Korean Embassy that the diplomats were in Malaysia to retrieve the body and seek the release of a North Korean arrested in the case. He said the delegation also wants “development of the friendly relationship” between North Korea and Malaysia.
Malaysian officials have confirmed that the victim of the attack was Kim Jong Nam. North Korea, however, has identified him only as a North Korean national with a diplomatic passport bearing the name Kim Chol.
Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam said Malaysia will continue to insist that the body be identified by medical examiners through DNA or other means before it can be released. He said the protocol is to release it to the next-of-kin once identification is completed.
Asked how long Malaysia can keep Kim’s body at the morgue, he said “we can keep as long as we want.” Police have said that the body will eventually have to be released to the North Korean embassy if there is no claim by Kim’s family members.
The killing of Kim Jong Nam appeared to be a well-planned hit. Malaysian authorities say North Koreans put the deadly nerve agent VX on the hands of two women who then placed the toxin on Kim’s face. Kim died on the way to a hospital, within about 20 minutes of the attack, they say.
Arrmanatha Nasir, the spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, said Aisyah’s lawyers have already begun preparing her defense. Indonesia expects Malaysia will uphold a legal process based on the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, he said.
“Is she an intelligence agent or not? Let’s see the hearing process and what she says through her lawyers,” Nasir said. “If there is information like that, of course we would get it either from our own intelligence services or from foreign intelligence services which have cooperation with us, and so far we have no such information.”
Malaysia has also detained a 45-year-old North Korean, Ri Jong Chol, whose role in the killing is unclear. Asked if the North Korean will be charged, Apandi said it depends on the outcome of the investigation.
Authorities are seeking seven other North Korean suspects, four of whom fled the country the day of Kim’s death and are believed to be back in North Korea. Others sought include the second secretary of North Korea’s embassy and an employee of North Korea’s state-owned airline, Air Koryo.
Malaysia hasn’t directly accused North Korea of having masterminded the killing, but South Korea has. It has not provided evidence.
South Korean lawmakers said Monday that the country’s National Intelligence Service told them in a private briefing that four of the North Koreans identified as suspects are from the Ministry of State Security, the North’s spy organ.
Kim Jong Nam was estranged from Kim Jong Un. He reportedly fell out of favor with their father, the late Kim Jong Il, in 2001, when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
He had been heading to Macau, where he has a home, when he was killed.
Isolated North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regime. Kim Jong Nam was not known to be seeking political power; he was best known for his penchants for drinking, gambling and expensive restaurants. But his position as eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since it was founded could have made him appear to be a danger.
Malaysia continues to seek DNA samples from Kim Jong Nam’s immediate family. He is believed to have two sons and a daughter with two women living in Beijing and Macau.