The killing joke

NORTH KOREA: After the mysterious murder of North Korean royal family member Kim Jong-nam, two women go on trial. But are they criminal assassins or political pawns?

When it hit the news in February 2017, it seemed the most bizarre assassination in recent memory. Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was walking through a busy Kuala Lumpur International Airport in broad daylight when two young women smeared VX nerve agent — a deadly chemical weapon — on his face. One of the women was wearing a T-shirt with «LOL» printed in large letters across the front and claimed afterward that she had been duped into believing she was participating in a harmless comedy prank for Japanese TV. In Assassins, documentarian Ryan White presents in straightforward, methodical terms (with a crime this outlandish, who needs any spectacular embellishment?) a convincing argument for the assassins’ innocence; for the idea they were the unwitting pawns of a brutal regime eager to purge and deter through fear any potential threats to power.

Assassins-documentary-North Korea-MTR2
Assassins, a film by Ryan White

Common hallmarks

White does not draw parallels to other recent assassination attempts, but, as wacky as Kim’s killing was, it also bore common hallmarks of an audacious form of authoritarian public messaging we have seen several times since, in the poisonings, many suspect were authorised by Russian president Vladimir Putin with the nerve agent Novichok, of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury (2018) and of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on a flight from Siberia (2020). Namely, a state leaves a signature calling card by using a substance so rare only top echelons of rule can arrange access, and a warning of both its willingness to stop at nothing to eliminate dissenters and its immunity from consequences by deploying scapegoats and leave the higher-ups impervious, denying all knowledge. The message to dissenters is clear: We can get you anywhere, and nobody can stop us. The murder and dismemberment with a bone saw of Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Kashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, too, was a crime so callously audacious, with the lurid violence and far-fetched tinge of a Hollywood thriller, it showed that spaces for civic pleasantries safe from today’s global despot breed do not exist.

As Assassins tells it, Kim Jong-un had been trying to have his half-brother killed for some time, to the degree Kim Jong-nam even wrote him a letter asking him to desist. Kim Jong-nam had once been first in line to take over as North Korea’s Supreme Leader when his father, Kim Jong-il, died. He fell out of favour with the regime when he was caught taking a secret trip in 2001 to Tokyo’s Disneyland — the antithesis in values thought worthy of the chosen ones of Korean communism. He’d been living in exile in Macau since and had been a CIA informant since his brother took power in 2011. As a rare source able to fill in the «blackest of all the black holes» of lacking information on the North Korean government’s inner workings, he was a danger to his half-brother’s authority. In foreign interviews, he had even questioned the legitimacy for socialism of a third-generation dynasty. Since North Korea was so reliant on harmonious ties with China, it was difficult to pull off an assassination smoothly there, so the regime waited until Kim Jong-nam was outside the country, and an informant appointment in Malaysia provided that opportunity.

Assassins-documentary-North Korea-MTR1
Assassins, a film by Ryan white


Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian national, and Đoàn Thị Hương, a Vietnamese national, were arrested and charged, their actions recorded on CCTV, and faced Malaysia’s possible death penalty. But a number of male suspects, including four who’d been present at the airport during the assassination, and a North Korean chemist on the payroll of Malaysia’s North Korean embassy, were able to leave the country and return without charge. Lawyers for the women argue they had been approached and groomed by North Korean agents while working in waitressing and massage (the dark side of earning a living for young migrant women in Malaysia sees many forced into prostitution, and the danger of exploitation was all around them). Đoàn had already performed a number of pranks for Japanese TV, greatly adding plausibility to the story.

the dark side of earning a living for young migrant women in Malaysia sees many forced into prostitution, and the danger of exploitation was all around them

Whatever their degree of knowledge of the oily substance on their hands and its effects, it seems undeniable that they were regarded as disposable, and used to execute others’ cynical and strategic political designs. Interviews with their family members in Indonesia and Vietnam show their humble origins. Even in prison, as their trial plays out, with unexpected twists and turns, it becomes clear their death or freedom depends less on facts and culpability, but geopolitical alliances and diplomatic favours at the highest level — a condition of powerlessness amid corruption that provokes depression in the defendants as they await their fates from cells. It’s only fitting that White places the telling of this story largely in the mouths of two journalists, Hadi Azmi (of US-funded BenarNews, affiliated with Radio Free Asia) and Anna Fifield (the Washington Post’s Beijing Bureau Chief), the press being an essential, embattled check against tyrants’ murderous impunity.

Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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