April 18, 2019

The women accused of killing Kim Jong-nam

65The murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader, is likely to go down as one of the most notorious in history. Two women are now facing trial in Malaysia for it. Nga Pham of BBC Vietnamese and Rebecca Henschke of BBC Indonesian piece together their story.
The CCTV footage from the departure lounge of Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport is unforgettable. A middle-aged man is approached from behind by two women who execute the most peculiar of manoeuvres, apparently wiping his face with vigour.
Authorities say that was the moment that VX nerve agent, a deadly substance banned by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction, was used to murder Kim Jong-nam.
The women are Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28 and they are set to appear at a court in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
As the women bounded up to Mr Kim, they were being watched by a group of seated North Korean men, thought to have been their “handlers”, who subsequently boarded flights to various destinations.
Ms Aisyah and Ms Huong, meanwhile, were swiftly arrested, accused of carrying out this crime, although not planning it. They insist they thought it was all just a TV prank and made no plea when presented in court. But this is a crime that can carry the death sentence.
This narrative is well known and has been rehearsed in the media incessantly, but what really brought them to this place?
In the months before the killing, both women are thought to have been involved in the seedier side of Kuala Lumpur’s life.
Malaysian police have said Doan Thi Huong was working at an “entertainment outlet” and Siti Aisyah worked at the Flamingo hotel, a small establishment which has a massage parlour. Through all the references to their time in Malaysia in the media is the implication that the two may have been involved in the sex industry, but there has never been any direct evidence for this.
Doan Thi Huong appears to have had several Facebook pages under pseudonyms such as Ruby Ruby and Bella Tron Tron Bella. They show a woman both confident and carefree.
They, as well as immigration records, appear to show a pattern of coming and going from Malaysia and various other regional locations, such as Phnom Penh and South Korea.
Migrant workers, sex workers and those in the escort industry rub shoulders in Kuala Lumpur’s red light districts. It is an international scene with workers from places such as China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a fair number of whom are thought to enter the country on tourist visas.
There is also a wide variety of work available for young women looking to earn money swiftly, taking roles such as guest relations officers in karaoke bars or in massage parlours or as escorts.
It is not clear if the women knew each other before the day of their arrests. Police claim they practised the manoeuvre several times in shopping malls, and they argue it was a calculated attack done in full knowledge of the consequences.
The lawyer for Ms Huong, who has met her only once, told the BBC there was nothing in particular that stands out about her.
And the journey of both these women to Kuala Lumpur is unexceptional. It comes via rural villages ringed with rice paddy fields and typical semi-rural upbringings.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah grew up in Serang, Tangerang. It is just two hours’ drive away from the high-rise buildings and glittering mega-malls of central Jakarta but it is another world.
Her parents are farmers who mainly sell potatoes and turmeric. The pace of life in Serang is slow, and people spend hours on their front porch talking to their neighbours.
Siti Aisyah is the youngest of three siblings. She went to a state primary school, a short walk down the road from her home. Teachers at the school remember her as a “quiet” and “polite girl”, and are all in shock at the turn of events.
When the BBC visited the concrete playground it was packed with students in their neat red and white uniforms. They all knew Siti Aisyah’s name.
The unravelling of Kim Jong-nam’s mysterious death
Kim Jong-nam: Main players in mysterious killing
Her education ended here as her parents could not afford to send her to high school.
Doan Thi Huong had a similar start in life many hundreds of miles away in Vietnam, in a small house nested at the corner of a paddy field in Nghia Binh village.
he one-storey brick house is built in the typical Vietnamese rural style, with a tiny courtyard surrounded by thin banana trees.
To get to the centre of the village, one has to brave the flimsy bamboo plank that serves as a bridge over a muddy creek between the house and the main road.
This mainly Catholic area of Nam Dinh province, 90km (55 miles) from Hanoi, boasts a large number of churches and not much else.
Most of the people here are farmers, working the exhausted soil of northern Vietnam, generation after generation.
As in poor villages everywhere, young people are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to get to the cities, make money and have a better life than their parents.
Ms Huong’s father is a Vietnam war veteran who was injured in Quang Tri in 1972 and now works as a guard at the local market. Her mother died in 2015 and he remarried a woman from the same village last year. She too works at the market, helping him to look after visitors’ bicycles and carts.
“Huong was never close to me,” he told the BBC, adding that his daughter, the youngest of five, was perhaps closer to her late mother who was ill and bed-bound for decades.
“Then she left home at 18 and we rarely saw her back.

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