A Vietnamese woman accused of assassinating the half-brother of North Korea’s leader pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of causing hurt with a dangerous weapon and could be released as soon as next month, according to her lawyer.
A Malaysian court on Monday sentenced 30-year-old Doan Thi Huong to three years and four months in prison, backdated to her arrest in February 2017. That means that, with a customary one-third reduction of the sentence, she should be free in May, her lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik said.
Ms. Huong and her co-accused, Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, who was released last month, initially faced murder charges and death by hanging. They were caught by security cameras appearing to smear something on the face of Kim Jong Nam at Malaysia’s main international airport before being tracked down and arrested.
Mr. Kim, the elder sibling of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, died shortly afterward of what Malaysian investigators said was exposure to VX, a toxic nerve agent banned by the United Nations.
Malaysian authorities said a team of North Korean agents flew out of the country shortly after the two women accosted Kim Jong Nam.
Yet Ms. Huong and Ms. Aisyah are the only people put on trial for the killing. The assassination had been widely viewed as an attempt to eliminate any potential threat to Kim Jong Un, who has steadily consolidated his hold on North Korea since succeeding his father, Kim Jong Il.
Over the course of the trial, the two women maintained that they were duped into approaching Mr. Kim. They said they believed they were filming a segment for a prank video show and were directed by men who they thought were helping them break into the entertainment industry.
North Korea officially denies any role in the attack. But last year, ahead of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, North Korean officials expressed regret to Vietnam for the killing, including for allegedly using the son of a former North Korean ambassador to Vietnam to recruit Ms. Huong into the plot, two people familiar with the situation said.
It remains unclear why North Korean agents perceived Kim Jong Nam as a threat.
He appeared to have little political ambition, preferring to live the life of a bon vivant across Asia, savoring Portuguese wine and Salvatore Ferragamo loafers, among other things.
He also grew up in separate households from his half-brother in Pyongyang. Some historians say that was largely because his grandfather, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, disapproved of his father’s dalliance with his mother, an actress.
Kim Jong Nam appeared to fall out of favor with his father, Kim Jong Il, when he was caught trying to enter Japan with a false Dominican passport in 2001. He told authorities at the time he was planning to visit Tokyo Disneyland, prompting North Korea watchers to view his siblings Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Un as more likely successors.
Afterward, Kim Jong Nam largely faded from view, until he ran into Ms. Aisyah and Ms. Huong at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
The security-camera footage showed Ms. Aisyah approaching Mr. Kim near an airline kiosk and attracting his attention. A moment later, Ms. Huong reaches from behind, wrapping her arms around his face.
Mr. Kim jerked backward, apparently stunned, before the two women walked away in opposite directions.
Ms. Huong and Ms. Aisyah said they didn’t know the men coaching them were from North Korea, or that their actions would result in harming Mr. Kim or causing his death.
Ms. Aisyah, who is 27, was freed on March 11 after prosecutors dropped charges against her following intense diplomatic lobbying from Indonesian officials. Her release led to assertions of unfair treatment from Vietnam.
Legal experts have raised concerns over differences in the way the two women were treated, ultimately leading to one being convicted, albeit with a lighter sentence. Malaysia’s main council of lawyers, the Malaysian Bar Council, asked the country’s attorney general to shed some light on the matter.
So far the attorney general’s office hasn’t responded, nor did it respond to request for comment on Monday.
Indonesia’s government, though, had lobbied hard for Ms. Aisyah’s release. Malaysia’s attorney general cited good bilateral relations between the two countries as a basis for freeing her in an exchange of letters between the two countries’ governments.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo appeared to prioritize her release ahead of presidential elections later this month. He received Ms. Aisyah at the presidential palace in Jakarta after she arrived back in the country.
Her release led to assertions of unfair treatment from Vietnam, which stepped up its own diplomatic efforts to free Ms. Huong.
Ms. Huong’s lawyers told the court that she hadn’t slept for three nights after Malaysia’s attorney general dropped the charges against Ms. Aisyah.
High Court judge Azmi Ariffin said Ms. Huong was “a very, very lucky person today” for being offered the opportunity to plead on a reduced charge.
“Thank you,” Ms. Huong said. She appeared happy, smiling but in tears.
Vietnam’s ambassador to Malaysia, Le Quy Quynh, said Ms. Huong knew nothing about the assassination plot and was herself a victim.