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    Trial opens for women accused of killing North Korean leader

    HONG KONG — Two women accused of killing the half brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, by smearing a nerve agent on his face pleaded not guilty to murder in a trial that began Monday in Malaysia.

    The trial in the killing of the estranged older sibling, Kim Jong Nam, is being closely watched for clues about the workings of the isolated authoritarian state at a time when it is facing off with the United States and its allies by testing ballistic missiles and a nuclear device.

    The women, who had been working as escorts, said they were duped by North Korean agents into believing they were participating in a hidden-
    camera reality show.

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    Kim died en route to a hospital minutes after the Feb. 13 encounter at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

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    The women accused of killing him — Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, of Vietnam — said that they had no idea who the victim was or that he had died until after they were arrested.

    Their lawyers have argued that they are scapegoats and that the true culprits were North Korean agents who directed the women and provided the banned chemical weapon they used, VX nerve agent.

    They could face the death penalty. Outside Kuala Lumpur in Shah Alam on Monday, their lawyers asked the court to allow the identities of four people suspected of being North Korean agents to be revealed.

    North Korea has denied involvement in the killing and argued that Kim died of a heart attack. Kim, 45, was the eldest son of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and had once been seen as the most likely person to replace him in the country’s hereditary dictatorship.

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    But Kim Jong Nam seemed to take little interest in the more brutal aspects of running a dictatorship and fell out of his father’s favor when he was caught trying to enter Japan with a fake Dominican Republic passport in 2001.

    He went to live in the Chinese territory of Macau, where he developed a reputation for visiting casinos and drinking in local restaurants. Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, was instead groomed to take over, which he did after his father’s death in 2011.

    Kim Jong Nam had been critical of his brother and of the North Korean state, telling a Japanese journalist that the dynastic succession “was a joke” and that the “Kim Jong Un regime will not last long.”

    The young leader, however, proved to be savvy and ruthless in his consolidation of power, ordering the execution of his uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.

    Kim Jong Nam was reportedly the target of previous assassination attempts and had written to his brother in 2012 to plead for mercy, South Korean officials said.

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    He was preparing to fly to Macau on Feb. 13 when Siti and Huong approached him. Security camera video showed a person grabbing Kim’s face from behind as he walked through the terminal. He then told airport staff and security personnel of the attack and was taken to an airport clinic, where he collapsed.

    The women had been told they would be paid at least $100 after the task, said Gooi Soon Seng, the lawyer for Siti. They said they were told to wash their hands after smearing the substance on Kim.