North Korean ‘Masterminds’ Evade Kim Jong Nam Murder Trial

Kim Jong Nam, left, exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Narita, Japan, on May 4, 2001, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on May 9, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR — At a trial that could send two Southeast Asian women to the gallows, Malaysian prosecutors are shining a light on several men at large they say masterminded and played crucial roles in carrying out the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong’s Un’s estranged half brother.

The lone defendants at the Shah Alam High Court – Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong, 29, of Vietnam – say they are innocent, duped by the men into participating in February’s attack at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, which they say they thought was a harmless prank for a TV show.

If found guilty, they face a mandatory death sentence. In Malaysia, that means they would be hanged.

But since the trial began on Oct. 2, the alleged role of the four missing suspects has come to dominate the proceedings. Both the prosecutors and the defense team say a lot more is going to be revealed in the weeks ahead about the men, who outside of court they acknowledge are believed to be North Korean citizens.


The prosecution this week also stressed that authorities reserve the right to take more formal action against the four if they can gather enough evidence.

A look at what’s come out so far about the missing men, who are referred to officially in court only by their aliases, and what’s known about their actions:



Police are now calling him the “mastermind.”

According to chief investigating officer Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz, this man, who sometimes went by the nicknames “Grandpa” and “Uncle,” orchestrated the operation on the ground.

Wan Azirul said airport security video shows that he arrived at the terminal in the same vehicle with two of the three other suspects about 90 minutes ahead of the Feb. 13 attack. Security cameras then captured him meeting both of those men and the third suspect, all separately, at an airport cafe before the attack.

Police say Hanamori, who initially wore a purple shirt but changed after the attack, not only came to the airport with two of the suspects but he met with all three just before the plan was put into action. He then left after the attack in a vehicle with two of the three and was seen later that day – and for the last time – with two of them in the departure hall of the main terminal.



He allegedly recruited Aisyah.

Aisyah’s lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, told reporters before the trial that she was recruited in early January by this man, who was known to her only as James, to star in what he said was a video prank show. The lawyer said James and Aisyah went to malls, hotels and airports, where she would rub oil or pepper sauce on strangers’ faces. James recorded the encounters on his phone and paid Aisyah between $100 and $200 for each prank.

Police official Wan Azirul testified in court that James was seen heading to the Sama Sama airport hotel, which is in the terminal not far from where the attack took place. Wan Azirul said security videos show James entering the hotel room, but quickly checking out.

He said James is later seen at the departure hall of the main airport terminal, where the other three suspects went. What his role was on the day of the hit isn’t yet clear – an examination of the airport security camera footage in court Thursday was cut short when Judge Azmi Ariffin ruled more time was needed to digest the information.

The prosecution is expected to return to the videos in the next session, scheduled for Nov. 6.



He put the liquid poison on Aisyah’s hands, according to Wan Azirul’s testimony.

On the morning of the killing, Chang met up with Aisyah at the same cafe where he had earlier met with Hanamori. Wan Azirul said Chang handed Aisyah an airport taxi voucher during their short meeting and he was believed to have later applied the deadly VX nerve agent poison to her hands just before the attack, which happened at about 9 a.m.

The bespectacled Chang wore a dark baseball cap and carried a backpack and a white plastic bag. But after the hit, he ditched his belongings, changed his shirt and even managed to shave off his goatee. He was seen instead carrying an orange plastic bag.

Defense lawyer Gooi has said before the trial it was Chang who had pointed Kim out to Aisyah as the target and put a substance in her hand.


Mr. Y

Prosecutors claim he put the poison on Vietnamese defendant Huong’s hands.

On the day of the killing, after arriving with Hanamori and the others, he was seen walking around the airport with a woman prosecutors claim was Huong near the area where Kim was attacked. He also wore a baseball cap and had a backpack and water bottle.

Video footage shows that after the attack, Mr. Y also changed his shirt and discarded his belongings. Police say he then left the budget terminal in the same vehicle with Chang and Hanamori.

Not much else about him has been revealed.


The Escape? 

Police say the four suspects flew out of the country the day of the killing and are believed to have made their way back to Pyongyang.

At Malaysia’s request, Interpol has issued a “red notice” – the closest equivalent it has to an arrest warrant – for four North Koreans wanted in connection with the killing: Ri Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Song Hac, 34; O Jong Gil, 55; and Ri Jae Nam, 57. But it is not entirely clear if they are the same four whose actions are now being detailed in the court testimony.


Help from Pyongyang is highly unlikely.

North Korea has denied any involvement. And it’s not a member of Interpol.

Story: Eric Talmadge