The CCTV footage is grainy but unmistakable – the chronicle of a state assassination. It’s still only 9am when the cameras at Kuala Lumpur International Airport pick up a portly man dressed in faded jeans, a blue T-shirt and grey jacket. He cuts an unobtrusive figure as he waddles through the busy terminal, a black rucksack hanging from his shoulder.
Then, appearing suddenly from behind him, two young women seem to ambush the man, smearing something on his face before retreating out of shot. One wears a sweatshirt with the logo LOL in large letters, or Laugh Out Loud.
Their balding victim is not laughing, though. Clearly troubled, he complains to security guards who escort him to the airport medical centre, where he lies sprawled in a plastic armchair, his life ebbing away. Within 20 minutes, he is dead.
This is the moment Kim Jong Nam, half brother of Kim Jong-un is attacked at Kuala Lumpar International Airport in Malaysia by unsuspecting assassins
The political killing of Kim Jong Nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un, could have been lifted from the pages of a Cold War thriller. Meticulously planned and devious in its conception, this brazen assassination on February 13, 2017, not only showed contempt for world opinion, but it sent a message that the many enemies of North Korea will find hard to forget.
Kim Jong Nam, 45, the only credible rival to the North Korean leader, had been murdered with a deadly nerve agent in broad daylight – and on foreign soil. Yet for all the outrage and revulsion, few details beyond the barest outline have ever been disclosed. In the past few weeks, the two women who carried out the murder plot have been quietly released by the Malaysian authorities, who now accept that Siti Aisyah, from Indonesia, and Duong Thi Huong, from Vietnam, were nothing more than naive dupes. Neither woman has given evidence in court, neither has spoken in public and it will be a long time before they do, if ever.
The true perpetrators, the casually dressed North Korean agents who patrolled the departure terminal of KL airport as the gruesome killing took place, are now safely back in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, well beyond the reach of the Malaysian courts.
As for the governments involved – Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia – despite open provocation from a rogue state on their doorstep, they are saying nothing.
The elder brother of the North Korean dictator, pictured pointing towards his attackers, was only minutes from an agonising death, having been poisoned
Today, The Mail on Sunday has pieced together the full story of an assassination as bizarre as it was effective. Speaking to official sources, police investigators, friends of the two women and their legal representatives, we have established that:
- The killing was conducted by two prostitutes who were first befriended, then controlled by North Korean ‘boyfriends’;
- Dreaming of internet stardom, the women truly believed they were taking part in a televised prank when they smeared Jong Nam with nerve agent VX and condemned him to an agonising death;
- A North Korean hit squad had trailed the playboy and his glamorous mistress across South East Asia before the killing;
- The CIA handed Jong Nam tens of thousands of dollars shortly before his death;
The Malaysians tracked down and identified the true killers, only to release them as part of a grubby deal. No one has been prosecuted for this horrific murder – and it is unlikely that will ever change.
In truth, Jong Nam had been a dead man walking for years. Once seen as the heir to the North Korean dictatorship, he had fallen out of favour thanks to a fondness for casinos, women and Western entertainment.
Kim Jong Nam is seen above in an airport terminal in Kuala Lampur shortly after a hit squad exposed him to VX nerve agent in February 2017. He died shortly afterward
While still a young man, Jong Nam had been caught attempting to enter Japan on a false passport, apparently determined to visit Disneyland in Tokyo. The humiliation was said to have been the final straw for his tyrannical father, Kim Jong Il. By 2017, he was living in self-imposed exile, gambling, drinking, and womanising in resorts around Asia, the prospect of power now a distant memory.
And when his half-brother, Kim Jong Un, entered the presidential palace in 2011, Jong Nam – the only plausible rival – knew he was living on borrowed time.
There had already been an attempt on his life by the time he reached Kuala Lumpur. A North Korean defector had told the South Koreans how, in 2012, the despotic regime had hired a taxi driver to carry out a hit-and-run killing. It only failed because Jong Nam changed his travel plans.
Doan Thi Huong, pictured, smeared the VX liquid on Jong-nam’s face, while wearing this LOL t-shirt
That same year, Jong Nam wrote a pitiful letter to his half-brother pleading with him to spare his life, but it was to no avail.
The younger Kim was apparently convinced the US wanted to topple him and might seek to install his feckless half-brother as a puppet. Jong Un had already cemented his grip on power by having his uncle, his defence minister and other rivals murdered – reportedly blown apart with anti-aircraft guns – and was in no mood for relenting.
His resolve can only have been strengthened when his agents established that Jong Nam had indeed made contact with the CIA.
Investigators have confirmed to The Mail on Sunday that four days before his death, Jong Nam met a Korean-American in a five-star resort and spa on the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi. There, he handed over a laptop full of files, which were downloaded by the agent and then deleted from the computer altogether.
It is believed that the CIA handed over a thick wad of $100 bills in return – which would no doubt be converted into gambling chips within days. But the North Koreans had been watching. And when Jong Nam flew out of Langkawi for Kuala Lumpur, his fate was sealed.
The preparations for the hit began a few months earlier and in the strangest of circumstances. It seems that the North Korean regime tried out a number of women for the role, all of them pretty, all of them working as prostitutes, before settling on Siti, then 25, and Huong, 27.
Divorced and with a young son, Siti was the daughter of an Indonesian farmer, but by Christmas 2016 she had been drawn into the sex industry in Malaysia.
Siti Aisyah, pictured, was involved in the sex industry when she was approached by a Malaysian driver known only as ‘John’ who had been recruited by North Korean agents. Both Siti and Huong were told they were being paid to take part in a YouTube prank
By day she offered sexual services as a masseuse at the Flamingo Hotel spa in Kuala Lumpur, and in her spare time she was a call girl called Kelly, picking up foreign clients at the Beach Club bar (a seedy venue also, coincidentally, patronised by the doomed Jong Nam).
It was outside the bar that, in the small hours of January 5, 2017, she was approached by a Malaysian driver called ‘John’, apparently recruited by North Korean agents to find the right kind of girl to take part in what were described as pranks. These would be filmed and broadcast on YouTube. Siti agreed to meet another man called ‘James’ in the upmarket Pavilion shopping mall the following morning, where she encountered an attractive individual with a chiselled appearance.
‘James’ was a North Korean agent. He claimed to be Japanese when they met and spoke such poor English that Siti would later resort to Google Translate simply to communicate. Even so, he managed to persuade her that she had just the right looks for internet stardom – and Siti believed him.
According to Vietnamese intelligence sources, Huong had been recruited a few weeks before.
She, too, was hungry for fame and it was only six months since she had appeared – all too briefly – on a talent show called Vietnam Idol. She lasted only 20 seconds – a humiliating experience, but not enough to put her off.
Doan Thi Huong, 28, was told all they had to do was approach their targets and smear baby oil in their faces while the incident was filmed
By December 2016, Huong was working as a call girl in Hanoi, posting doll-face pictures of herself on escort sites as she sought to lure South Korean sex tourists.
Siti and Huong knew nothing of each other, but each was told the same alluring story.
Their handlers explained that the job was simple: all they had to do was carry out a series of harmless stunts in malls and airports.
They had to sneak up behind their targets and smear baby oil on their faces while the cameras watched. For this they would be paid £75 a time. Internet fame was just around the corner. A third woman enlisted in Kuala Lumpur had a lucky escape. She had insisted on a pay rise, it seems, and so was dropped.
As for the supposed ‘victims’, it is not known how much they received for their efforts, but they, too, were part of the elaborate plot, ensuring the practice runs could take place with no recriminations. With easy money in their purses and stars in their eyes, neither Siti nor Huong seemed to notice how very strange the whole thing was.
Jong nam, meanwhile, was meandering around South East Asia in a haze of alcohol, accompanied for much of the time by his mistress. Formerly an air hostess with North Korean airlines, the beautiful So Yong Ra, 41, now lived with Jong Nam in Macau, the vast complex of casinos a short boat trip from Hong Kong. Did Yong Ra betray him? Many suspect so. There has been no sign of her since the assassination and she, without any obvious explanation, failed to accompany Jong Nam on his final trip.
What is certain, however, is that, by now, the North Korean spies were running their quarry to ground. In a month of cat-and-mouse manoeuvres before the assassination, Siti was flown to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where she carried out three practice pranks under James’s supervision.
Then she was told to buy a ticket to Macau before being called back to Kuala Lumpur by her handlers. Jong Nam’s plans were never completely certain, but he was moving within range.
Kim Jong-un, pictured, is believed to have wanted his brother assassinated to remove him as a possible threat against his regime
On the night before the assassination, Siti celebrated her 25th birthday at the Hard Rock Cafe in Kuala Lumpur, where, in scenes captured on a mobile phone, she boasted about her YouTube work. One of her girlfriends is seen declaring with unintentional prescience that Siti is about to become a celebrity.
Just a few hours later, she was picked up by a driver and taken to the KL International Airport for another routine job, although her handlers explained that this victim would be a little different.
He was their boss, they said, and they wanted to play a trick.
In separate conversations, Siti and Huong were each told that ‘the boss’ liked pretty girls, but they were also warned that he had a bad temper and might take the joke badly. They were to carry out the prank swiftly, apologise, and then make a hasty retreat.
It is notable that the women were kept apart until the very moment of the attack and there has been speculation, so far unconfirmed, that they carried separate components of VX, which only produced lethal effects when combined. Then, their task performed, Siti and Huong casually washed their hands and walked out of the airport.
They had no idea that the man they had smeared was already desperately ill and pleading for help – or that within minutes he had collapsed in a nearby medical clinic as the nerve agent shut down his heart and organs. CCTV images caught one of the four North Korean agents watching silently outside the doorway of the medical centre as Jong Nam’s life slipped away. Then, confident that the job was done, he is seen stepping quietly away.
Jong Nam must have been well briefed on the likely threats to his life as he was found to have been carrying a dozen vials of nerve agent antidote in a sling bag. But so sudden and effective was the attack that, in his confusion, he failed to take the dose that might have spared him.
He was also found to be carrying $124,000 in cash and a laptop from which the files had been wiped clean.
Siti was arrested the following night as she provided sexual services to a client in a hotel spa. At first she was incredulous, believing the arrest was another TV joke. Investigators say she expected to be freed at any moment, and it was only when she was shown news reports proving the man from the airport terminal was dead that she finally broke down in tears, genuinely shocked.
Huong, in perhaps the most compelling proof of her innocence, was arrested when she returned to the airport the following day. She was looking for her handlers. They had disappeared from sight after the prank and still owed her the £75.
What followed was a diplomatic fiasco. While some of the North Korean agents flew out of Malaysia before the murder was discovered, four, including James – real name Ri Ji U – took refuge in the North Korean embassy. After a month-long stand-off, which saw a number of Malaysian citizens detained in North Korea, the four prime suspects were released in a shabby tit-for-tat deal and allowed to fly home, doubtless to an embrace from their great leader in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, the shambolic handling of the case and the decision to charge and then release two simple-minded women duped into committing murder has provoked outrage, as has the inability of three Asian powerhouses – Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam – to stand up to a murderous regime.
‘Somebody brought VX, a weapon of mass destruction, to our country and the government hasn’t even investigated the people responsible,’ said one of the lawyers representing Siti.
‘To me, that is like a declaration of war. Instead, our government tried to brush it under the carpet by prosecuting two innocent women.’
Leading Malaysian criminal lawyer Wee Choo Keong described the use of VX in Malaysia as ‘a serious violation of national security’ and said: ‘The North Korean suspects appear to have been let off because of diplomatic considerations. The women should not have been charged without overwhelming evidence.’
For Kim Jong Un – fresh from a triumphant summit with Vladimir Putin, not to mention an earlier meeting with Donald Trump lavishly hosted by Vietnam – the message seems clear. He can get away with cold-blooded murder inside and outside his country’s borders. That knowledge should send a shiver of fear through Siti and Huong as they while away their days in government safehouses, separated from their families and – in Siti’s case – her 11-year-old son.
Both are in the protective custody of their own governments, who are keen to avoid not just embarrassment but two more murders at the hands of North Korea. Experts believe their lives may be in grave danger.
In fact, it is something of a mystery that they were not killed at the same time as Jong Nam through exposure to the VX they smeared on him.
While some have suggested that the poison was split into two harmless components, it is far from clear that this was even possible.
Some believe that Siti and Huong are still alive only because they washed their hands so quickly.
Criminologist Pathmanathan Sundramoorthy, an associate professor at a university in Penang, Malaysia, said: ‘Those two women will have to be careful with every move they make. North Korea will do anything to silence them. I cannot imagine how long they will be in hiding or if they will ever be safe.’
Lee Hun-joo, a South Korean academic based in the US, said: ‘I feel sorry for the two women who were used as pawns in the assassination which South Korean intelligence believe had been in the planning for five years. They will for ever fear being targeted by Kim Jong Un’s brutal regime.’
Such a bleak reality may not yet have dawned on the two women.
As Huong was led from court when the charges against her were dropped, she seemed almost pathetically thrilled to finally get a taste of the fame she desired. In what may prove to be her last words in public, Huong spoke to the media throng that fleetingly engulfed her: ‘I’m very happy,’ she said. ‘I want to sing and act.’
Many believe she would be better advised to melt into anonymity.