Unspoken link to Kim: The woman accused of assassinating his half brother

Doan Thi Huong escorted by police as she leaves after a court hearing at Shah Alam High Court, Malaysia, back in March 2018

As North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is feted in Hanoi, a Vietnamese woman accused of assassinating his half brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport just over two years ago, faces a potential death penalty in Malaysia.

Doan Thi Huong, 30, is accused of delivering the potent VX nerve agent that killed Kim Jong Nam in February 2017. 

US officials have said the orders came from Pyongyang.

“There is zero per cent chance that Kim Jong Un didn’t order the assassination of his brother himself,” said Dr Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former CIA analyst.

Huong and her co-defendant say they thought they were taking part in a prank television show. Whether that is true, they were not the ones with the motivation to kill Kim Jong Nam, Dr Terry said. “They were just used.”

The charges that Huong faces carry an automatic death penalty, though the new Malaysian government has suggested that it will move to abolish capital punishment.

The contrast between the warm welcome given to North Korea’s leader in Vietnam and the harsh future that lies ahead of Huong shows how complicated diplomacy with North Korea can be – and how repercussions for North Korean abuses and exploitation may fall by the wayside as the world tries to realign its relationship with Kim Jong Un for the better.

In Hanoi, Huong is little mentioned, but the North Korean leader is everywhere.

Even Huong’s parents have said that they welcome the summit, telling Japanese reporters that they had hopes that Kim could “save their daughter.”

Professor Andrew Yeo of Washington’s Catholic University, who tracks North Korean human rights issues, said it was ironic that the Vietnamese government was “willing to roll out the red carpet for Kim”, even though his regime embroiled a Vietnamese national in an international murder plot.

Although Vietnam is often taken as a model for North Korea, Prof Yeo said, the country also has its human rights problems. “The ‘Vietnamese model’ also signals to Kim that economic development and investment are possible without necessarily improving its human rights record,” he added.

Huong – thought to have been recruited by North Korean agents while working at a bar in the Vietnamese capital  – is awaiting the conclusion of her trial in Malaysia. She flew to Kuala Lumpur a week before Kim Jong Nam’s slaying on Feb 13, 2017.

The eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the 45-year-old had once been groomed to take over the country himself. He had been living in Macau since 2003 and his sometimes critical stance, as well as his bloodline, made him a potential threat to his brother.

Huong and Siti are the only two people on trial for Kim Jong Nam’s killing.

Both have pleaded not guilty; their trial has been extended due to the large number of witnesses and is likely to drag on until at least mid-2019.

Investigators do not believe they acted alone: Malaysian officials identified four men at the airport who were probably North Korean agents, but all fled the country shortly after the attack.

However, North Korea has denied involvement.

Reports said that North Korean officials have informally offered regret for involving a Vietnamese citizen in the killing of Kim Jong Nam.

Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow for South-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that many in Vietnam probably knew little about Huong’s case and that the government was unlikely to draw attention to it, due to its own use of the death penalty and pursuit of critics internationally. “The government doesn’t want to highlight this case,” he said.

The U.S’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that Vietnam may be a model for North Korea’s economic and diplomatic reforms, arguing that the “miracle” seen in the country could be replicated in North Korea.

Such comments worry many activists.

“If Vietnam serves as any example for the path North Korea should head in, then we should be very concerned about the future state of human rights in the Korean Peninsula,” said Francisco Benscosme, Asia Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International.

Dr Terry said there is little chance that Trump will bring up broader human rights issues with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, and even less that he will bring up the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.

“He doesn’t care,” she added, of Kim Jong Un’s thoughts about Huong. “We’re talking about a man who assassinated his brother.”

Courtesy The Straits Times

Categories Asia-Pacific