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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP

Will North Korea try to assassinate Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah, the Vietnamese and Indonesian linked to Kim Jong-nam’s murder?

  • Both women maintain that they were tricked by North Korean agents into smearing nerve agent on the face Kim Jong-un’s half-brother
  • Siti was released earlier this year and Doan will soon also walk free after accepting a lesser charge. But will Pyongyang try to silence them for good?
North Korea
Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, convicted in connection with the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother two years ago, will never be truly free even after her release from a Malaysian prison next month, experts warn.
Instead, she and Indonesian citizen Siti Aisyah, who was released last month, could be targeted by North Korean agents for elimination, as they were witnesses and accessories to the sensational assassination of Kim Jong-nam on February 13, 2017.
Kim Jong-nam pictured in Macau in 2010. Photo: AP
Both women maintain that they were tricked by North Korean agents into thinking they were playing a prank for a reality TV show when they smeared VX nerve agent on the face of the portly playboy while he was standing at a check-in counter at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Within 20 minutes, he was dead.

If either of them was to later reveal what they did know about the plan then their lives would be in danger, according to Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University in the US.

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“What Pyongyang fears is that after the passage of a few years, either or both of the two women [could] have a change of heart due to contrition or a financial offer from a publisher … and tell the true story, make a movie, go on TV and talk about their interactions [with] their North Korean ‘employers’,“ he said.

“The media [would] not leave them alone. They [would] be tempted to talk. Hence, yes, they are not entirely safe. They should avoid the limelight and live quietly.”

Benny Mamoto, Indonesia‘s former inspector-general of police, agreed that the pair might be in danger as “North Korean agents’ modus operandi … is to eliminate sources of threats, including witnesses [to assassinations]”.
Doan Thi Huong leaves court after her sentencing on Monday. Photo: AP
Doan was originally charged with murder, but on Monday pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of causing hurt with a dangerous weapon and was sentenced to three years and four months in jail. Her lawyer said the 30-year-old is likely to be freed in May.
Siti, 27, was released after prosecutors abruptly moved to drop the murder charge against her on March 11. She flew back home that same evening on the private jet of Indonesia’s ambassador to Malaysia, Rusdi Kirana. She has since been placed in a safe house “for her general safety”, according to Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, from the country’s foreign ministry.

Chaos, jubilation and chants of ‘Kim Jong-nam’ as Indonesian villagers welcome home Siti Aisyah

Four North Koreans were also charged with Kim Jong-nam’s murder, but fled Malaysia soon after the assassination took place.
Doan’s lawyer, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, said justice will not have been done until these four men are found and brought before a court. This may never happen, however, as “it is entirely possible that Kim Jong-un has had them purged to eliminate the witnesses”, according to Bruce Bennett, senior international defence analyst at the Rand Corporation think thank.

Others, such as David Maxwell, a retired army colonel and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said: “Ultimately justice will never be served until Kim Jong-un is held accountable as there can be no doubt he ordered this assassination.”

A South Korean watches a TV news report about the assassination. Photo: EPA

Lee, of Tufts University, said that the outcome of the court case will have further emboldened the North Korean leader.

“This case once again exemplifies North Korean exceptionalism – that is, international laws and norms don’t apply to the weird but belligerent North Korean state,” he said. “North Korea will be emboldened and its critics will be more fearful.”

Other members of the extended Kim family could now be targeted, Lee said, though “the practicability of reprisal depends largely on which country [they] live in and whether or not they are under government protection”.

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“It is natural for Pyongyang to try to kill Jong-nam’s son in the near future,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who previously worked for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

He was referring to 23-year-old Kim Han-sol, who appeared in a video on YouTube soon after his father’s death and claimed that he, his mother and sister were under the protective care of a group called “Cheollima Civil Defence”.
That group also claimed responsibility for an attack on the North Korean embassy in Spain in February.
A still from the video that was posted to YouTube featuring Kim Han-sol. Photo: Reuters
The assassination of Kim Jong-nam hurt North Korea’s diplomatic relations with Malaysia, which were downgraded in the wake of the killing, with both sides imposing travel bans on each other’s citizens in the immediate aftermath.
Hoo Chiew-ping, a senior lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at the National University of Malaysia, said the current government of Mahathir Mohamad had already signalled that it wanted to resume ties so that Malaysia is not “the only Southeast Asian country that doesn’t have relations with the two Koreas”.
“This would be a return to Malaysia’s traditional foreign policy position that engaging both Koreas is vital to maintain linkages and provide opportunity for facilitating dialogues, as the cases of Singapore and Hanoi summits have shown,” she said.

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At the same time, the government should step up monitoring of any North Koreans operating in the country to prevent it becoming a base for smuggling operations, Hoo said.

Maxwell, of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, said this might already be happening.

“I am sure North Korea has already resumed its illicit activities in Malaysia just as it is conducting them around the world. [They] are key to survival of the regime as they provide money,” he said.

“I think that the North Korean front companies operating in Malaysia may [also] provide support to the proliferation of North Korean weapons to the Middle East and Africa.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: no hiding place for pair linked to kim killing