Less than a month ago, North Korea and Malaysia were locked in a diplomatic standoff over the alleged assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in February in Kuala Lumpur airport. The world watched to see who would blink first.
Malaysia did. They released Kim’s corpse, which was embalmed and lying in a morgue, to North Korea, and allowed North Korean nationals held in the embassy in Kuala Lumpur to return to Pyongyang. Pyongyang then let Malaysian diplomatic staff and their family members go home. “We hope they don’t create a case like this again,” Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said. The standoff was over, but so was the effort to hold Pyongyang—which has denied involvement in the murder—accountable for a murder on Malaysian soil.
With North Korea off the hook, two migrant female workers from Southeast Asia—who allegedly smeared Kim with VX nerve agent—are now left taking the fall for the alleged assassination as they wait in jail for their next court date on April 13 over murder charges. Their predicament highlights the vulnerability of foreign workers in Malaysia, many of whom flock to the country because of its wide-ranging economic opportunities combined with lax visa rules.
The women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, are from Indonesia and Vietnam, respectively. Both in their 20s, they worked odd jobs in Malaysia’s entertainment industry, and told police they thought the assassination was a television show prank. The authorities are skeptical. If it was a prank, why they did they rush off to the bathroom to wash their hands? Aisyah’s father told a reporter she was a “hardworking and friendly girl, but never naughty.” Huong’s brother told the (paywall) New York Times she was a gentle person and a good student. Huong is believed to be the woman who was wearing a t-shirt with “LOL” written on it during the alleged attack, which was captured on CCTV footage.
Lawyers for the two women, who are being held in Kajang Prison in Malaysia’s capital, said in interviews with Quartz they were being treated well and are in good health. They are being held separately and, unlike other inmates at the prison, they have their own cells.
“I have seen her, she is okay. She is comfortable,” said Huong’s lawyer, Naran Singh.
Singh said it was too early to comment in detail on his client’s case, but Gooi Soon Seng, Aisyah’s attorney, said that “of course” Aisyah maintains her innocence. What’s more, he added, the stories of the two women were consistent.
“They thought it was a prank they had been playing all along,” Gooi said. “What we know is that the real culprits behind the case have already escaped to North Korea on the day of the incident.” He said that the North Korean government is trying to “paint the picture that they are totally uninvolved.”
“But I really believe that these two naïve girls have actually been used by them, to carry out acts on their behalf, unknown to them that they were using poison,” Gooi added.
In Southeast Asia, Malaysia is one of the most attractive destination for workers. The country has about two million documented migrant laborers and about double that number of undocumented workers, said Aegile Fernandez, a consultant on human trafficking and director of Malaysian rights group Tenaganita. The women in the Kim case don’t match the typical migrant. They moved back and forth between Malaysia and other countries in the region, taking advantage of the region’s connectivity and ease of travel for citizens of Southeast Asia, instead of staying put for long periods of time.
“There are some who say… [North Korea] used them,” said Fernandez. “Then there are others who say no, they are intelligent enough to know the difference. So there is a mixed reaction from the public.”
But cases of abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia are well-known, and normally involve being cheated on a contract, sold into sex traffic or as mail order brides, suffering harsh working conditions in factories and industries such as fishing, and, in some cases, kidnapping for ransom.
Some believe the women were recruited specifically for Kim’s murder because they could provide some distance. If they were Malaysian, the diplomatic fallout—which has so far been limited to cancelling visa-free travel for North Korean citizens coming to Malaysia—could have been worse. The North Koreans have a long history of throwing their chosen recruits under the bus. In 1983, when the DPRK was accused of planting a bomb (paywall) in Myanmar in an attempt to kill South Korea’s president—they missed, but killed 21 people, including cabinet members—three North Korean agents were tracked down. Two were killed but one confessed and was thrown in prison for life. He was then ignored by his government and died behind bars 25 years later.
Alex Dukalskis, a specialist on Asian politics at University College Dublin, said that from Malaysia’s perspective, the government was in a “tough spot” when it came to handling the standoff with North Korea as its citizens were being held in Pyongyang.
“This could have been disastrous in both political and humanitarian senses for the Malaysian government so it had a limited set of options,” he said. “I’m not so sure that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) outmanoeuvred Malaysia, but both governments appeared to defuse what was a crisis for each of them.”
The case is going to be difficult to handle, Aisyah’s lawyer admitted. According to his client, the main suspect was one of the North Korean men who fled shortly after the incident. It does not seem likely that he will return to help with the defense.
“Our biggest problem is that the main culprit has escaped,” Gooi said—which leaves only the two women, who could face the death penalty if convicted. “They got a sword hanging over their head.”