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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Kim Jong Nam murder: the mystery that gripped the world


A balding man with a backpack slung over his right shoulder walks across a crowded airport concourse, stopping to look up at the departure board to find his flight to Macau. As he stands in front of an automatic check in machine, he is grabbed from behind and something is put over his face. The incident lasts just over two seconds.

The blurry CCTV footage from airport cameras makes it impossible to see exactly what is happening. But half an hour later, Kim Jong Nam will be dead, poisoned by one of the most toxic nerve agents ever invented.

The assassination of Kim — the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — gripped the world, spawning weeks of media coverage and sparking a tense diplomatic standoff. South Korea immediately pointed the finger at its isolated northern neighbour, and Malaysia, in whose main airport the killing took place, found itself under an unwelcome international spotlight.

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Agonising Pain

Kim Jong Nam was used to hanging around airports, having spent a decade shuttling between different locations after falling out with his family and going to live in exile. The figure who had spoken out against the North Korean regime since leaving his homeland had been targeted with toxic nerve agent VX.

He died quickly and in agonising pain, his vital organs suffering horrendous damage as the chemical surged through his system. The killing on February 13, 2017, was an assassination worthy of a spy thriller, capturing global headlines and featuring a cast of North Korean agents using pseudonyms, and young female migrant workers allegedly trained to be crack assassins.

The Cold War-style murder was the latest bizarre story to hit Malaysia, a normally placid, Southeast Asian backwater. These ranged from the disappearance of Flight MH370 to the assassination of a Palestinian scientist in Kuala Lumpur, allegedly by Israeli operatives.

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Kim, who was travelling on a North Korean passport under a different name, was rushed to the airport medical clinic and given emergency treatment following the attack, but died soon afterwards in an ambulance transporting him to hospital.

The poison was so potent that Kim, who had told friends in the months leading up to the attack that he feared being killed, did not have time to take tablets that he was carrying which could have worked as an antidote.

Two seemingly unlikely assassins — Siti Aisyah from Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam — were arrested in the days after the killing and accused of having smeared the toxic nerve agent VX on his face.

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Carefully Planned, Executed

The women went on trial for murder in October, 2017. But after proceedings had run for a year and a half, prosecutors unexpectedly announced in March they were withdrawing the murder charge against Aisyah, and she flew home.

They did not provide any explanation for the move but it followed intense diplomatic pressure from Indonesia. A month later, Huong agreed to accept a lesser charge of “causing injury” and she was freed Friday after more than two years behind bars.

The pair had steadfastly maintained their innocence, saying they were recruited by North Koreans who fled Malaysia after the assassination, and were tricked into carrying out an attack they thought was a prank for a reality TV show. Still, prosecutors insisted the women knew what they were doing and that the murder “was carefully planned and executed”.

Read more: Vietnam woman in Kim assassination accepts new charge, likely to go free

CCTV footage seen during proceedings showed the pair running in different directions after carrying out the attack. Their arms were stretched out in front of them, and they headed to separate airport bathrooms to clean up. Huong — who was wearing a T-shirt with “LOL”, which stands for “Laugh Out Loud”, during the attack — and Aisyah fled the airport by taxi.

Four North Koreans, who allegedly masterminded the murder, were seen on CCTV footage in the airport before the attack, and allegedly passed the poison to the women to carry out the assassination.

The men made a quick getaway following the murder, changing their clothes and heading to the airport’s main terminal, where they met a North Korean embassy official and an official from national airline Air Koryo. They are then believed to have flown out of the country, heading home via convoluted routes.

© Agence France-Presse