HANOI: A Vietnamese woman who stood trial for the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother arrived home Friday, bringing down the curtain on a dramatic and often bizarre two-year murder mystery.
Kim Jong Nam, the estranged relative of Kim Jong Un who was once seen as heir apparent to the North’s leadership, died in agony after having his face smeared with a banned nerve agent as he waited at klia2 in February 2017.
The sensational killing made headlines around the world and sparked a furious diplomatic row as Seoul accused Pyongyang of an elaborate plot to murder a figure who had spent years in exile and been critical of his family’s rule.
Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and Indonesian national Siti Aisyah were arrested after being spotted on CCTV approaching Kim, but they always denied murder.
The women instead insisted they were tricked into carrying out the hit by North Korean agents, who told them it was a reality TV show prank and fled Malaysia after the killing.
The Vietnamese suspect was met by throngs of reporters at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport Friday evening, saying she was relieved to be home and happy to start her next chapter.
“I am so happy to come back to my country,” said Huong, wearing large sunglasses as she arrived home with her Malaysian lawyers.
“I don’t know what I will do but I want to be on stage, like an actress – that’s what I want.”
‘I felt so lonely’
Huong and Aisyah were both on trial in Malaysia for the Cold War-style killing, but in March, prosecutors dropped the murder charge against Aisyah after diplomatic pressure and she flew home.
Last month, they withdrew murder charges against 30-year-old Huong, who pleaded guilty to a reduced count of “causing injury” and was told she would be released in May at the end of her sentence.
The Vietnamese former hair salon worker left her rice farming village after secondary school, raising eyebrows with her funky fashions and edgy hairstyles.
Clips of her on Vietnam Idol soon circulated online, along with unverified footage of her kissing the star of a popular Vietnam YouTube channel.
More than two years after her arrest, Huong was freed from prison outside the Malaysian capital early Friday before her flight back home later in the day.
She recalled her days in jail and said she planned to go to church now that she is free.
“I felt so lonely and I missed my home so much – that was my most fearful feeling. I cried all the time,” she told reporters before being whisked away in a van.
‘True killers escaped justice’
While there is relief for the women, no one else is in custody over the murder and those behind the plot are unlikely to ever be punished.
“The assassins have not been brought to justice,” said Huong’s lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, adding the women’s legal teams consistently argued that four North Koreans who fled Malaysia after the killing, and were charged in absentia, were the real murderers.
The women were arrested after they were captured on airport CCTV cameras walking up behind Kim as he waited for a flight. One was seen clasping her hands over his face.
Kim died quickly, his face smeared with poison.
The women, who faced death by hanging if convicted of murder, went on trial in October 2017 but the case was slow-moving due to the large number of witnesses and appeals from the defence teams.
The defence stage of the trial had been due to get underway in March before prosecutors suddenly dropped charges against Aisyah, 27, following intense diplomatic pressure from the Indonesian government.
Vietnam then stepped up pressure for Huong’s murder charge to be dropped and at the start of April, prosecutors offered her the lesser charge, paving the way for her release.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang welcomed her return home, saying on Twitter she was “glad” Huong had been released and was “reunited with her family”.
Pyongyang has never admitted to killing Kim Jong Nam – it claims the dead man was a North Korean citizen named Kim Chol – and that the accusations were a smear campaign.
The assassination sparked a furious row between North Korea and Malaysia, previously one of nuclear-armed Pyongyang’s few allies, and prompted both countries to expel each other’s ambassadors.
Ties have improved in recent times, however, with Malaysia saying it plans to reopen its embassy in Pyongyang, which was closed shortly after the murder.