Pyongyang : Two women pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges of murdering the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, opening a trial over an assault that shocked the world and accelerated an international drive for sanctions against the rogue regime.
The women, 25-year-old Siti Aisyah of Indonesia and 28-year-old Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam, stand accused of colluding with a team of North Koreans to kill Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13. Proceedings are scheduled through the end of November, with verdicts and any sentencing to follow.
Mr. Kim, the estranged, self-exiled older sibling of North Korea’s leader, died shortly after the two women exposed him to what Malaysian authorizes said was VX nerve agent. The United Nations classifies the banned substance as a weapon of mass destruction.
Both women face the death penalty, which is carried out in Malaysia by hanging. They have said they were unwitting accomplices in the plot and that they thought they were being paid to perform a prank for a television show. North Korea has denied any involvement in the killing.
The women arrived in separate vehicles at the courthouse under heavy security, wearing bulletproof vests. They wore handcuffs inside the courtroom and gave their pleas through interpreters.
Ms. Aisyah and Ms. Huong are being tried jointly in proceedings expected to last until the end of November, with prosecutors expected to call as many as 40 witnesses. The verdicts and any sentencing would come later.
No one else has been charged or is on trial. Several North Koreans identified as suspects in the plot fled Malaysia quickly after the killing. Three were allowed to leave Malaysia in exchange for North Korea letting Malaysian diplomats leave Pyongyang.
Defense attorneys want the North Koreans involved to be formally identified and to face charges. Prosecutors said they would reveal the identities in the course of the trial.
The first witnesses to appear were an airport information-counter employee and a police officer to whom a disoriented Mr. Kim spoke after the assault. The police officer said that he took Mr. Kim down one floor from the departure hall to the airport clinic and that Mr. Kim asked him to walk slowly and said his eyes were blurry.
Police say Ms. Aisyah, a single mother from a rural area outside Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, worked as a spa masseuse on regular visits to Kuala Lumpur. Her lawyers say that a North Korean approached her in January to act in prank videos in Malaysia and neighboring countries, and that she thought he was Japanese.
Ms. Aisyah’s lawyer says the man asked her to approach strangers in malls, airports and casinos, and to put liquids such as oil and Tabasco sauce on their hands or faces. She said she earned around $100 for each prank and was always directed to target men whom she describes as Chinese looking, according to the lawyer.
Ms. Huong, the youngest of five in a farming family in rural Vietnam, had moved to Hanoi at age 18 to become a pharmacist. There, she dropped out of school, eventually taking up work, until last year, as a drinks server at a downtown cowboy-themed bar.
In December, her defense team says, a North Korean man approached her with a proposition similar to the one offered to Ms. Aisyah. Malaysian investigators say she later traveled to Kuala Lumpur and practiced smearing liquids on people’s faces at a shopping mall and other locations.
Both women were captured on airport security cameras assaulting Mr. Kim as he arrived at a departures hall on Feb. 13. The women were also seen gathered beforehand with several North Koreans who intelligence officials in Seoul say worked for the foreign and security ministries in Pyongyang.
Many onlookers hope the trial will answer questions about Mr. Kim’s demise, including by revealing new clues about the members of the North Korean hit team.
The attack at one of the world’s busiest airports added to calls by the U.S. and others to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang over the drastic increase in the pace of its weapons testing. North Korea has launched well over a dozen missiles this year, including two in recent weeks over Japan’s main island. Last month, it tested what it said was a hydrogen bomb.
The killing led the U.S. to cancel backchannel talks with Pyongyang on its missile program and set in motion a severe downgrade in ties between North Korea and many Southeast Asian nations that have been conduits for Pyongyang to evade international sanctions.
Malaysia rescinded the rare privilege of visa-free travel for North Koreans, expelled Pyongyang’s ambassador, sent home many North Korean citizens working in the country and last week banned Malaysians from traveling to North Korea, citing growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Other Southeast Asian nations say they have begun investigating North Korean activities in their countries and limiting approvals for North Korean diplomats.