Defense lawyers highlighted a political motive Wednesday in the murder of Kim Jong Nam as they began linking a North Korean embassy official to the Kuala Lumpur airport killing that stunned the world.
The attorneys unfurled their courtroom strategy after the police’s lead investigator on the case told the court during cross-examination that three men wanted in the killing were driven to the airport in a minivan bought by the embassy official.
“We are saying from here that this is not a simple murder. There are a lot of political connotations,” Defense attorney Gooi Soon Seng told reporters at the end of the 14th day of trial of two Southeast Asian women accused of murdering Kim.
“All the people involved were North Koreans and the North Korean embassy was not cooperative in helping the police.”
Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong are standing trial on charges that they conspired with four North Korean men, who fled the country after the killing, to assassinate the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a Kuala Lumpur area airport on Feb. 13.
The defense aims to prove that although the North Korean men were not embassy officials, they were “connected in one way or another” with the diplomat, the lawyer said.
“In this case, the motive appears to be more political than anything else and we are moving towards that direction. And our clients, the girls, would not have any political motive whatsoever,” said Gooi, who represents the Indonesian defendant.
Prosecutors have accused the two women of accosting the victim at the departure terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 and smearing the banned nerve agent VX on Kim Jong Nam’s face as he was preparing to board a flight to Macau.
Both have pleaded not guilty, saying they were tricked by the four men into attacking Kim Jong Nam and were made to believe they were being paid to perform a prank for a reality TV show.
The two, who were arrested days after the killing, face the death penalty, if convicted.
Embassy official bought minivan
Airport surveillance videos played in court on Wednesday showed three of the North Korean fugitives arrive at the airport in the minivan, which was registered to a North Korean suspect named Ri Jong Chol.
But Ri Jong told investigators that the vehicle had been bought in his name by a North Korean embassy official named Chel Su, lead case investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz testified Wednesday.
“Ri Jong, in his statement, said his name was only used to buy the minivan and he was there when it was bought but had never used it,” Wan Azirul said.
This prompted Gooi to ask Wan Azirul who were the people who had used Ri Jong Chol’s name to buy the minivan.
“People from the North Korean embassy,” Wan Azirul replied.
Ri Jong was arrested four days after the airport killing but was later released due to insufficient evidence. He was deported soon after for not having valid travel documents.
Wan Azirul also said he had recorded statements from Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk Il, the country manager for North Korea’s national carrier, Air Koryo, at the embassy on March 26. He did not elaborate.
Closed-circuit television footage showed the diplomat, as well as the airline manager, helping the four North Korean suspects at the airport’s check-in within an hour of Kim’s murder.
Wan Azirul testified that he had made requests to the North Korea embassy for permission to interview Chel Su and Ri Ji U, a 30-year-old North Korean also known as James, but did not receive an answer.
The murder caused a fierce diplomatic feud between Malaysia and North Korea. But Kuala Lumpur eventually agreed to send Kim’s body to Pyongyang in exchange for nine Malaysians trapped there by an exit ban.
South Korea’s spy agency has claimed the attack was part of a plot by Kim Jong Un to kill a brother he reportedly never met, but North Korea has denied the allegations.
Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of the late leader Kim Jong Il, had spoken out publicly against his family’s dynastic rule.