The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A gruesome North Korean murder plot: Trial sheds new light on assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother

Two women are standing trial for the death of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half-brother. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)
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On the morning of Feb. 13, a pudgy, balding middle-aged man approached a self-check-in kiosk in a terminal at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. As he punched up the information for his AirAsia flight to Macau, nothing would flag him as any different from the other travelers hustling through the busy area.

But his passport was under a pseudonym, Kim Chol. It gave his age as 46. He had tattoos on his chest, arms and back, according to the Associated Press, among them a fire-breathing dragon. He clutched a backpack containing $120,000 in cash, possibly a gift from an American intelligence officer. And he had every reason to be worried about someone trying to kill him.

Still, Kim Jong Nam — the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — did not see his death coming.

While he stood at the kiosk, a young Vietnamese woman in a white shirt emblazoned with “LOL” — “laugh out loud” — stalked up from behind and slipped her hands over his face. She then quickly ran toward a nearby bathroom. A second woman approached and did the same. She also made for a sink in the other direction.

Already, the oily, odorless substance smeared on the exile’s skin was beginning to shut his body down. He died in an ambulance heading for the hospital.

That the North Korean regime would be blamed for the assassination was no surprise. As The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield wrote two days later, the totalitarian government “makes no bones about getting rid of its enemies — sometimes through traditional purges and executions in North Korea, sometimes through mysterious car crashes in a country with almost no traffic. And sometimes with plots that would make James Bond proud.”

This month, a Malaysian judge in Shah Alam, just outside Kuala Lumpur, is hearing details of the assassination of the man once considered the natural heir to the family dynasty. Siti Aisyah, of Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, of Vietnam, face the death penalty for their alleged role in the murder, according to Reuters.

Over the course of the trial, prosecutors have laid out one of the more bizarre murder plots in modern political history.

Four North Koreans, suspected government agents with code names such as “Mr. Y” and “Grandpa,” are also accused of being involved. None, however, are in custody. They all took flights out of Kuala Lumpur that morning, via a circuitous journey through Jakarta, Dubai and Russia, to get back to North Korea.

The alleged murder weapon, the substance smeared on Kim Jong Nam’s skin, was no simple poison but VX, a nerve agent banned by international treaty and rarely used today. During the trial, a government chemist testified that a lethal dosage of VX was 0.142 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, as the Straits Times reported.  The concentration found on Kim Jong Nam’s skin was 1.4 times greater than the deadly amount, he testified.

Prosecutors showed the court security footage from the airport that not only caught the bizarre encounter between Kim Jong Nam and his attackers but additional footage linking the two women to the other suspects. Investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz told the court the other plotters have been identified only as Mr. Chang, Mr. Y, James and Hanamori, who was also known as “Grandpa” or “Uncle,” according to Reuters.

These four men are accused of recruiting Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong and training them for the encounter. They even ran the women through a practice session at the airport two days before the attack, according to testimony.

In his testimony, Wan Azirul juxtaposed video of the practice session with footage of the actual murder to dispel the idea the defendants were unknowingly involved in the assassination. “She seemed to be anxious,” he said, the AP reported. “From my observation, Doan has been informed and knew what needed to be done. Even though she seemed to be in panic, she knew what to do.”

Aisyah was captured on a security camera meeting at a cafe before the attack with a man in a black baseball cap who was holding a white plastic bag and handed a taxi voucher to her before she left, according to the AP.

Video showed their target, Kim Jong Nam, arriving at the check-in area at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. As he did, a woman identified as Huong approached him, clasped her hands on his face from behind and fled. There was no video showing the second suspect, but police testified that she was the person seen in the video running away, the AP reported.

The two women charged with the killing of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother, pleaded not guilty on Oct. 2. (Video: Reuters)

The investigator also pointed out video showing the suspects rushing into separate bathrooms after the attack, each with their hands outstretched, and then to an airport taxi stand. The state contends that women both ran to wash the nerve agent off after the attack. A government chemist testified that the deadly VX could have been immediately cleaned off by scrubbing and washing without causing harm to the attackers.

It did plenty of damage to their target. According to a pathologist’s report submitted at the trial, VX was found on Kim Jong Nam’s face, in his eyes, in his blood and urine and on his clothing and bag. It did lethal damage to his brain, his lungs, his liver and his spleen. Tests showed that the VX nerve agent inhibited enzyme levels in the victim’s body, causing a breakdown in neurotransmitters that send signals to the brain and muscles.

The suspects say they are not guilty. The women claim they were duped into believing it really was a prank, staged for a reality television show.

But prosecutors argued that their actions indicated both understood they were handling poison, and that traces of a VX byproduct were detected on Huong’s fingernail clippings and on the clothing of both women.

The judge, lawyers and defendants are scheduled to visit the scene of the crime next week.

The proceedings are unfolding as the North Korean leader continues to play a dangerous game of rhetorical chicken with President Trump over nuclear weapons testing. But, as an expert explained to The Washington Post earlier this year, the brazen assassination offers a rare glimpse into Kim Jong Un’s mind-set at a time when world leaders nervously try to anticipate his next move.

“It’s a sign of supreme confidence that he can get away with anything, that he can literally get away with murder,” Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea leadership expert, told The Post last February.

Kim Jong Nam was the oldest son born to North Korea’s second leader, Kim Jong Il. His mother was an actress, Sung Hye Rim. He grew up bouncing around Europe, including stops in Moscow and Geneva. By the time he returned to Pyongyang in 1988, the heir-apparent was no longer his father’s favorite. Not that it bothered him. As The Post has reported previously, the boy showed little interest in autocratic rule. He eventually settled for exile.

Despite his aversion to politics, The Post reported earlier this year that there had been rumors the more moderate Kim Jong Nam could be a stable successor should his younger brother lose power. “However improbable, there are always rumors that Kim Jong Nam could replace Kim Jong Un as the head of the regime at the behest of China or the U.S.,” a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst told The Post.

As a potential threat to his own power, Kim Jong Un put out a standing assassination order on his half brother as part of a larger bloody purge of possible usurpers. At least two other murder attempts on Kim Jong Nam had failed, the New York Times has reported.

At the Malaysian trial this month, prosecutors described the intricate plot that finally succeeded.

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