Kim Jong-nam Carried the Antidote to the Poison that Killed Him

December 1, 2017
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

A man watches a news report of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Seoul on Feb. 14, 2017. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images))

When the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was assassinated in a crowded Malaysian airport last February, he carried in his bag the antidote to the poison that killed him.

That finding was announced in testimony at a Malaysian court this week where two women are on trial for the murder of Kim Jong-nam. The women, Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, 29, of Vietnam, are accused of killing Kim by smearing a banned chemical on his face in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

A toxicologist testified that at the time of his death, Kim was carrying 12 vials of atropine, an antidote for VX nerve agent, the chemical used in his assassination. Kim was also carrying eight national currencies and $124,000 in cash, a police officer previously testified in court.

Prosecutors accuse Aisyah and Huong, the only suspects in custody, of conspiring with four North Koreans who fled the country the day of the murder. The women, who face the death sentence if convicted, have both pleaded not guilty. They say they were duped into thinking they were playing a prank for a hidden camera show on YouTube.

CCTV footage from the airport showed the two women approached Kim at one of the terminals, where they appeared to rub something on his face. They then rushed to restrooms while holding their hands away from their bodies.

Kim suffered seizures shortly after the attack and died in an ambulance on route to a hospital. At the time of his death, he had been traveling back to his home in the Chinese territory of Macau. He had been living in exile after falling out of favor with his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for making comments critical of the regime in Pyongyang.

Defense attorneys have argued that neither Aisyah or Huong knew they were handling poison and that they were tricked by North Korean agents into participating in the attack.

Airport security camera footage from the day of the attack showed at least four men whom authorities believed were North Korean operatives. Last month, an investigator in the case told the court that the car used to bring three of the North Korean suspects to the airport that day was purchased by a North Korean Embassy official known as Chal Su.

Security footage has also shown Hyon Kwang Song, then a North Korean embassy official in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk-Il of Air Koryo, North Korea’s national airline, at the airport 40 minutes prior to the murder. They were later seen meeting with the North Korean suspects, according to the Associated Press. The investigating officer said they helped the four suspects flee the country, and that when the two men were questioned, they said it was their duty to assist North Koreans hoping to leave Malaysia.

North Korea has denied any involvement in this murder, but there had been previous assassination attempts against Kim.

“According to some decent intelligence sourcing, there was a standing order as of 2011 or 2012 to take out undesired members of the ruling family. And so this is when people in North Korea’s intelligence services get a little creative,” said Michael Madden, director of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary North Korea’s Deadly Dictator. “Kim Jong-nam was living on borrowed time. This was on a narrow list of possibilities as to how Kim Jong-Nam’s life was going to turn out for him after his half-brother succeeded in North Korea.”

Gooi Soon Seng, a lawyer representing Aisyah, has said that the women had been working as escorts when they were recruited and were promised at least $100 to participate in the prank.

“Four men have escaped and they are putting the blame on the girls to make it look like a simple murder. But if you put all the circumstances together, it’s a political murder in which the girls have no interest in. We have to show how they are used as scapegoats and they don’t know what they are doing,” he said in November.

The trial will resume on Jan. 22.

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