16.04.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Kim Jong-nam Murder Case is Closed, or More Precisely Falls Apart


We recently wrote about the acquittal of one of the women accused of poisoning Kim Jong-un’s half-brother. On 11 March, Indonesian citizen Siti Aisyah was released from jail, because prosecutors refused to press charges against her.

On 1 April 2019, the second suspect in the case, Vietnamese citizen Doan Thi Huong, was sentenced to 3 years and 4 months in prison, and the charges against her were downgraded from premeditated murder to causing hurt by a dangerous weapons or means. The maximum punishment for this crime is a 10-year sentence, while the murder charge against Doan Thi Huong meant a potential death sentence. This means her defense team managed to convince the court that these naive and trusting women had been duped and had no knowledge that they were to be accomplices in a murder.

The embassy and the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam provided active support to the suspect in the case. In addition, Malaysia was criticized for having two women stand accused of murder, punishable by a mandatory death sentence, while the chief culprits were still at large. However, we can see that North Korea has not been directly accused of being behind the killing in any official statements. What has been actually written is as follows. South Korean and U.S. officials stated that the North Korean regime ordered to have Kim Jong-nam killed because he criticized his family’s rule of DPRK. Pyongyang has denied its involvement.

The day the convicted woman was detained (in February 2017) will be counted as the first day of her prison sentence, which means she will be released in a year’s time. Newspaper The Star reported that the judge told Doan Thi Huong: “Soon you will be back in your country and back to your family”. Other media outlets have suggested that the Vietnamese woman will be released as early as May for good behavior and will continue working in a recreation center.

The Kim Jong-nam murder case may now be considered closed. And in his summarized account, the author would like to highlight that the results of the investigation did not conclusively corroborate DPRK involvement.

It is clear that the women’s lawyers proved to be solid professionals who had managed to extricate their clients from a seemingly hopeless situation. The defense team played their North Korean trump card much more often than the prosecution did simply because the former needed to shift the blame from their defendants to someone else. And North Korean regime’s secretive and hated image fit that of the scoundrels who had convinced the naive women to commit the crime.

Still, there were some irregularities in the case.

  • In their first testimonies, the women (before they received legal help) said that they had spent the evening (on the day of the murder) with men who had sponsored the prank. Later on this information disappeared, because, according to the “official version” of the events, North Korean suspects fled the country on the day of the assassination.
  • The deceased had enough time to say that someone sprayed something into his eyes before he died. However, (as the video shows) neither of the accused did that. Does this perhaps mean that the attack had happened earlier, and the women simply provided a distraction?
  • DPRK citizens remain suspects in the case, mainly because the investigators have been unable to interview them. We would like to remind our readers that the arrested suspect, Ri Jong Chol, who had been, as South Korean media outlets were quick to report, the mastermind behind the murder and the creator of the poison (as a chemist by training), was released due to a lack of evidence against him. Staff at the DPRK embassy in Malaysia were no longer mentioned as suspects in the case once the police had an opportunity to question them.
  • But the investigation seems to have neglected quite a number of leads, which might have pointed to the real culprits in this case. For instance, they could have pursued the line of inquiry into a laboratory, where, according to some findings, the poison was made. The owner was a local, but the results of questioning him (not to mention his clients) remain unknown.
  • The same goes for people the women were in contact with, and it turns out that both of them had ties with South Korean citizens. It seems that Siti Aisyah had a sponsor who took her on trips to Japan and South Korea. Doan Thi Huong also visited South Korea on more than one occasion (out of her 198 Facebook friends, 40 are from the ROK.), at times, she received a notarized invitation letter from a citizen of ROK, who traveled to France the same day Kim Jong-nam died. And although it was reported that both women had expensive smart phones (clearly given to them as presents), no one tried to research the list of contacts on them.
  • It is public knowledge that the evidence against the women includes videos of “trial runs”, in which they practice pulling pranks on random strangers. However, one can see that there has not been even one mention of the theory that the women’s trainer was identified as a DPRK citizen.
  • In addition, there were no reports in the news about whether data from Kim Jong-nam’s computer was ever analyzed or what was uncovered.
  • It would also be interesting to find out why all the key witnesses for the defense either died or disappeared. If this was a mop-up operation or a pressure campaign, it is worth reminding our readers that after the murder and the following diplomatic crisis, DPRK spies probably do not feel safe in their country.

Considering the number of loose ends, the author thinks that the pieces of the puzzle may fit together to paint a completely different picture, which does not point to Pyongyang or intelligences services of the United States and South Korea. Instead the case involves people who had contacts with the previously mentioned agencies, i.e. anti-North Korean organizations that have enough support from odious Protestant Sects and capabilities to resort to murder.

Hence, although the case appears to be “closed”, the author will continue to follow the story.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”