Vietnamese recruited 2 months before Kim Jong Nam's murder

Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, center, is escorted by police as she leaves a court hearing at the Shah Alam High Court in Shah Alam, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Doan and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia have pleaded not guilty of killing Kim Jong Nam on Feb. 13, 2017, at a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. They are accused of wiping VX on Kim's face in an assassination widely thought to have been orchestrated by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf)
Indonesian Siti Aisyah, second from right, is escorted by police as she leaves a court hearing at Shah Alam High Court in Shah Alam, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Aisyah and Doan of Vietnam have pleaded not guilty of killing Kim Jong Nam on Feb. 13, 2017 at a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. They are accused of wiping VX on Kim's face in an assassination widely thought to have been orchestrated by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf)

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia — A Vietnamese woman accused of murdering the estranged half brother of North Korea's leader was recruited by a North Korean suspect at a Hanoi bar two months before the killing, her lawyer said Wednesday.

Details about Doan Thi Huong are emerging for the first time since she was charged, along with Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, with smearing Kim Jong Nam's face with the banned VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur's airport on Feb. 13 last year. The two are the only suspects in custody, though prosecutors have said four North Koreans who fled the country were also involved.

Lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told the court that Huong told police shortly after she was detained last year that she was introduced to a Korean man known as Mr. Y by a Vietnamese bar owner in December 2016. Mr. Y has been identified in court as Ri Ji Hyon, one of the four North Korean suspects who fled Malaysia.

Huong said Nguyen Bich Thuy, who was a former co-worker at a restaurant, called her and asked if she wanted to work for a Korean company as an actress in a "short movie or funny video," according to her police statement read out by Teh. She said she was introduced to Mr. Y at the Hay Bar, which belonged to Thuy and her husband, and asked for a salary of $1,000 a month.

Huong said she participated in her first prank outside Hanoi's Opera House, where she was told to kiss a stranger on the cheek. She said in the police statement that it was unsuccessful because the person shied away.

Teh told the court that Thuy had declined to come to Malaysia to testify but was questioned by Vietnamese police in March last year and made sworn statements that supported Huong's claims to police.

The lawyer said Thuy told Vietnamese police that Mr. Y, who speaks fluent Vietnamese, had initially wanted to recruit her but she declined due to family commitments. She said she then remembered Huong loved to act and introduced her.

Teh was cross-examining chief police investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz, who acknowledged that he hadn't investigated Huong's claims or contacted Vietnamese police to get details from Thuy. The lawyer said his law firm had written to Malaysia's attorney-general to seek Vietnam's approval for Malaysian police to probe the case there but was refused.

Teh also accused Wan Azirul of being "a biased investigator, not independent and not interested in the truth."

"We are terribly disadvantaged as the investigation didn't focus on this area," Teh told reporters later.

The hearing is to resume Thursday.

The two women face the death penalty if convicted, but not if they lacked intent to kill. Prosecutors contend the women knew they were handling poison.

Kim, the eldest son in the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding, had been living abroad for years after falling out of favor. It is thought he could have been seen as a threat to the rule of his half brother, Kim Jong Un.

Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea of involvement in Kim's death and have made it clear they don't want the trial politicized.

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