Outcome of North Korea assassination case spurs anger, questions

Doan Thi Huong leaves the airport after answering questions from media at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Friday. Photo by Luong Thai Linh/EPA-EFE

NEW YORK, May 9 (UPI) — The release of a Vietnamese woman convicted in the assassination of the half-brother of Kim Jong Un is inviting the fury of North Korean defectors who raise awareness of human rights abuses.

Jihyun Park, a North Korean refugee and activist based in Britain, told UPI by phone the release of Doan Thi Huong and others in the slaying of Kim Jong Nam, is another sign Pyongyang can continue to wield its abusive power with absolute impunity.

“I felt such rage that there is no such thing as justice,” Park said.

Doan was freed Friday and was seen most recently grinning widely upon her arrival at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi, Vietnam. Although she and another defendant, Siti Aisyah, were the last people to be in direct contact with Kim Jong Nam, Doan appeared relaxed as she told reporters of her plans: to return to Malaysia, and become an actress.

Park said she was outraged upon hearing the comments.

“She was laughing,” the defector said. “When I saw that, I felt rising anger.

“Even if you didn’t know you murdered someone at the time, a person died, right? You should feel some level of responsibility.”

Doan’s release comes more than two years after she and Aisyah jumped on Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur international airport, dabbing his face with a toxic nerve agent.

Prosecutors initially suspected Doan and Aisyah were secretly aware they were participating in a North Korea assassination plot, but Malaysia police eventually ruled out the possibility.

Hoo Chiew-Ping, a professor at the National University of Malaysia, told UPI the women were found to have no idea they were dealing with North Korean agents, as the men trained them for what they later described as a “prank” for a TV show.

“Siti Aisyah, for instance, she couldn’t even distinguish between North and South Korea,” said the analyst, who has been closely monitoring the case. “They also thought the North Korean agents were Japanese or Taiwanese. These two female suspects did not know their identity.”

The release of the suspects from Malaysian custody demonstrates the power of intramural diplomacy among member states of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations. It’s also an indication of a change in Malaysia’s political agenda since Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad assumed office in 2018.

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Hoo said behind the scenes Malaysia and Indonesia likely agreed to release Aisyah due to “insufficient evidence.”

The Vietnamese government also exercised some influence over Doan’s trial, and decided to switch defense lawyers, a move they “renegotiated” with the Malaysian government.

The prisoners are being freed at a time when the Malaysian government is seeking a restoration of a more “traditional” foreign policy that reflects the national interest, Hoo said.

The analyst said that strategy entails Malaysia remaining “equidistant” between North and South Korea, a policy former Prime Minister Najib Razakdisregarded amid South Korea’s “charm offensive” during a previous administration.

Razak’s alleged preference for South Korea may have displeased the North. It was certainly a departure from traditional foreign policy, Hoo said.

“I believe that was the reason why the [North Korea] assassination was conducted in Malaysia,” Hoo said.

ASEAN member states have historically friendly ties to North Korea, and many relations have survived the test of time.

Park, who survived a North Korean prison camp before fleeing the country, said a “blood alliance” prevails between Pyongyang and Hanoi.

North Korea deployed troops and fighter aircraft to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the experience has survived the test of time and bonded the countries, Park said, adding Kim Jong Un could be seeking to revive those old ties while following the footsteps of biological grandfather Kim Il Sung.

The United States and South Korea continue to pin hopes on North Korea moving in the direction of denuclearization. Park said she is not optimistic.

“North Korea will absolutely not give up nuclear weapons,” because they are a signature project of the North Korea founder, she said.

“The ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ means something completely different from the ‘denuclearization of North Korea’,” Park said, referring to the official language used to describe current objectives.

The defector said the outside world understands the two concepts as interchangeable, when in fact, from North Korea’s perspective, they are not. Pyongyang recently condemned Seoul and Washington for reduced-scale military exercises, calling the drills an act of betrayal.

“I wish people around the world knew the difference,” Park said.

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