Last suspect released in murder of Kim Jong Nam

The second woman accused of killing the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been released from a Malaysian prison, bringing one of the world’s highest-profile murder mysteries to an anticlimactic end after two years of twists and turns.

Doan Thi Huong was released from jail Friday morning, her lawyer said. Huong left for the immigration department, a prison spokesman said, where she is expected to be processed before returning home to Vietnam in the coming hours.

Huong, Indonesian national Siti Aisyah and four North Korean men were accused of smearing VX nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong Nam as he entered an airport on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in February 2017, killing him in minutes.

Lawyers for the two women argued they were duped by North Korean agents who tricked them into thinking they were taking part in a prank reality TV show.

North Korea has consistently denied involvement in the killing, though United States, South Korean and Malaysian authorities have said Pyongyang was responsible. Kim Jong Nam lived in exile from his homeland in the Chinese controlled territory of Macau and had occasionally criticized its regime.

The killing in a crowded airport quickly captured international attention, with many shocked at its audacity, ruthlessness and recklessness.

With Huong heading home, it is likely no one will ever be convicted of murder for using one of the world’s deadliest chemical weapons to stage a brazen assassination in broad daylight.

“The planners, organizers, and overseers of the assassination of Kim Jong Nam have indeed ‘gotten away with it,'” said Evans Revere, a consultant at the Albright-Stonebridge group and former acting US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

“No one will be held responsible for this horrific attack in which a weapon of mass destruction was used to kill a human being in an international airport.”

A sudden change

The four North Koreans charged were believed to have left Malaysia shortly after the killing and remain at large. Aisyah and Huong were arrested days later.

During the initial investigation and through most of the trial, police and prosecutors were adamant that both women knew what they were doing — making the decision to abandon efforts to secure murder convictions all the more surprising.

It’s unlikely the public will ever know exactly why the prosecution changed course, said Ragunath Kesavan, a Malaysian legal expert and former president of the country’s Bar.

“We can only speculate,” he said.

The case began while Prime Minister Najib Razak was in power. But he was ousted from power last year by incoming leader Mahathir Mohamad, who appointed a new attorney general, Tommy Thomas.

Aisyah was freed in March after the sudden about-face by the prosecution and returned home to Indonesia hours later. Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government claimed its intense lobbying effort helped secure her release.

Analysts speculated that Widodo may have been politicizing the case, as it came ahead of a presidential election he now appears poised to win.

The month after Aisyah was freed, Huong accepted the deal that led to her freedom Friday — she pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of “causing hurt by a dangerous weapon.”

She was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, but was given credit for time served plus customary sentence reductions.

‘No appetite’

The killing came amid North Korea’s flurry of ballistic missile tests in 2017, which led the global community to isolate it. Leader Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic charm offensive began the next year, and analysts say Pyongyang used the opportunity to try to put the case on the back burner.

Euan Graham, the executive director of La Trobe University’s Asia program, said North Korea has been very successful in using a series of meetings with world leaders — including those from the China, South Korea, Singapore, the United States, Vietnam and Russia — to flip the international narrative.

Now, Graham told CNN in an email, it appears there is “no appetite internationally to take the Kim Jong Nam case further.”

“The North Koreans have not only got away with it, Southeast Asian countries have been lining up to host Kim Jong Un, including Vietnam,” he said.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said the case will likely fade into memory as just another example of North Korea’s covert operations and killings abroad.

Pyongyang in past decades has been accused of abducting Japanese, South Korean and Soviet nationals, assassinating South Korean politicians and even blowing up a Korean Air jet in an attempt to derail the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, killed 115 people.

Those incidents are seldom a factor in dealings with North Korea, save for Japan, which counts the abduction issue among its most pressing priorities when dealing with Pyongyang.

“If an act of random terror, with a lot of completely innocent people dead, has been forgotten,” Lankov said, referring to the Korean Air bombing of 1987, “what would you expect from a politically motivated assassination which basically has produced no collateral damage?”

CNN’s Hadi Azmi and Jamaluddin Masrur contributed reporting