KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Terminal 2 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was convulsing with its usual Monday morning chaos. Passengers were crowding around self-check-in kiosks for no-frills flights to Bali and Cebu and Da Nang, cramming belongings into their carry-ons.
One of those navigating the cavernous white terminal was a rotund Asian man traveling alone, checking in for a flight to Macau after a week in Malaysia.
The nearby Starbucks was full of people camped out waiting for their flights, and the noise was so loud that the workers at the cafe selling Malaysian soup and noodles did not notice anything amiss just a few yards away.
There, near a counter in the check-in area, the man was suddenly set upon by two attractive young women who looked like any other travelers heading off on vacation. One was wearing a white sweater emblazoned with “LOL” and a short flowery skirt, her lips painted dark red and her hair cut in a femme-fatale bob.
What followed was an assassination that, complete with a honey trap and a public poisoning, has focused new attention on Kim Jong Un, the 33-year-old leader of North Korea, suggesting he will stop at nothing to keep power.
For the victim was his older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, traveling on an apparently fake passport that said he was a 46-year-old named Kim Chol. It was an attack that South Korea’s spy chief asserted was directly ordered from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
One of the women grabbed the man as the other sprayed liquid on his face and held a cloth over it for about 10 seconds.
In the hullabaloo of the check-in area, no one even seemed to notice. This account of the attack and its aftermath was pieced together from interviews with staff at the airport, police and other official statements, and leaks to the local media.
The women left swiftly, but not that swiftly. They went down three sets of escalators, past an H&M and a Baskin-Robbins, and out of the terminal to a taxi stand, where they needed to buy a voucher for their journey before lining up for a cab. They got in and told the driver to take them to the Empire Hotel, some 40 minutes from the airport.
Where are you from, the driver asked. Vietnam, the women responded.
Inside the terminal, Kim Jong Nam, feeling dizzy and apparently unable to see, stumbled to one of the counters to seek help. He was taken to a medical clinic inside the terminal, where he had a mild seizure, then was loaded into an ambulance.
He didn’t make it to the hospital. He died en route. And Malaysian officials soon discovered the real identity of the man who had been living in a kind of exile for the past 15 years.
This was not first attempt on Kim Jong Nam’s life. Five years ago, when he took power, Kim Jong Un issued a “standing order” to have his half brother assassinated, South Korean spy chief Lee Byung-ho told lawmakers in Seoul on Wednesday.
“It was a command that had to be pulled off no matter what,” Lee said, according to some of the lawmakers. “Their spy agency had consistently been preparing for the killing, and it just turned out to have been accomplished this time.”
One attempt, in 2012, prompted Kim Jong Nam to send a letter to his younger brother pleading with him to “spare me and my family,” lawmakers were told.
This week’s successful attack bore many of the hallmarks of other assassinations and attempts blamed on North Korea, including a foiled 2011 plot to kill a North Korean defector at a Seoul subway station with a poison needle hidden in a Parker pen.
Two days after the attack, just after 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, a woman was arrested at the airport — in the same terminal where the attack took place — and positively identified as one of the suspects. She was traveling on a Vietnamese passport identifying her as 29-year-old Doan Thi Hoang, police said.
North Koreans have been caught traveling on Southeast Asian passports before, making it entirely possible that the woman is, in fact, North Korean.
Police said that she was traveling alone and had told them she was tricked into the attack, which she had been told was just a prank. On Thursday morning, police arrested a second woman but were looking for four men thought to have been involved.
As all this was happening at the airport, Kim Jong Nam’s body was being transferred in a white van, escorted by four police vehicles carrying officers with automatic weapons, from Putrajaya Hospital to Kuala Lumpur General Hospital, where an autopsy was scheduled.
Black sedans bearing North Korean diplomatic plates pulled up outside the general hospital, and the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, emerged from one. He refused to speak to reporters.
Police said the North Korean diplomats had tried to stop the autopsy, insisting that the body be released to them.
The police refused. The autopsy was finished by Wednesday night, but the results were not immediately released. A Malaysian police official told local reporters only that the poison was “more potent than cyanide” but declined to say what exactly it was.
Shortly after 8 p.m., four North Korean cars sped out of the hospital grounds, one driven by a visibly upset young man in his 20s wearing a pink T-shirt — perhaps Kim Han Sol, the most visible of Kim Jong Nam’s six children.
But there was no such frenzy in Pyongyang, where the regime has been preparing to celebrate the birthday Thursday of Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il, an anniversary officially known in North Korea as the Day of the Shining Star.
The central squares have been cleared of snow, and pictures of trams and computers are on display at an industrial art exhibition commemorating the anniversary. Floral baskets from as far as Africa and Ecuador have been laid at the foot of statues of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, according to state media.
For North Korea, it is business as usual.