How North Korea Tricked Two Women Into Assassinating Kim Jong-un’s Half-Brother
The new documentary “Assassins” explores how North Korea conned two poor women into killing Kim Jong-nam—under the guise of a “prank video.”
This is the true story of two strangers, picked to visit an airport, work together, and have their lives taped. Little did they know they’d end up entangled in one of the most bizarre international conspiracies in recent memory.
At around 9 a.m. on Feb. 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il—and half brother to current ruler Kim Jong-un—was attacked by two women at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Surveillance footage captured the women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, smearing the toxic nerve agent VX onto his eyes and face before scurrying away. To add insult to (lethal) injury, Doan was sporting a white T-shirt with the letters “LOL” displayed across the chest. Jong-nam was pronounced dead two hours later, and the Malaysian authorities charged Siti and Doan with murder.
Then things got very, very weird. The two young women both alleged they were tricked into assassinating the North Korean royal; that they’d been recruited by men to participate in a “video prank” wherein they would smear a lotion onto a stranger’s face to elicit a surprised reaction, and had no idea the game would prove deadly. Their plight is captured in filmmaker Ryan White’s (Ask Dr. Ruth) new documentary Assassins, which makes a very convincing case that these two deeply unfortunate souls are telling the truth.
White’s film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, contains a wealth of evidence backing the theory that Siti, a sex worker from Indonesia, and Doan, an aspiring actress from Vietnam, were indeed conned by the North Koreans into committing this brazen political assassination.
They speak with “John,” a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur who says that he was tasked by a mysterious Japanese man named “James” with finding a lady of the night to participate in “a video shoot.” John picked up Siti, and proceeded to drop her off at the local mall. There, according to Siti, “James put baby lotion on my hands. I was instructed to hold someone’s hand, look at their face, then say sorry.” For this prank, she says she was paid 400 ringgits, or the equivalent of $96. “I thought, that’s easy money for doing such a simple thing, and I could send it home to my parents.” A photo of the three of them—John, James, and Siti—at the mall taken by one of John’s friends backs Siti’s story.
Doan, meanwhile, was approached by a man who went by “Mr. Y,” as well as an old Korean man who asked to be called “Hanamori,” meaning “uncle.” Like Siti, she began filming these “prank videos” for small amounts of cash—including surprising a man in the park with a kiss. Eleven days before the Kim Jong-nam assassination, Doan performed one of these pranks at an airport in Vietnam. She was to smear baby cream on an unsuspecting man’s face, then walk away. Security cameras captured the whole thing:
After the prank, Mr. Y texted Doan: “You must be harder when you cover the eyes. Hold 2-3 seconds then go down the whole face. When it sticks to the eyes it will make people surprised and puzzled. It will bring a good effect to the video clip.” Two days later, Doan took a flight to Kuala Lumpur with Mr. Y, and performed the prank again at airport. Siti was also made to practice a similar routine at KLIA.
The day before the assassination, Mr. Y texted Doan: “Everyone has their own roles to play. If everyone tries their best only then will the video clip have a good effect 100%.”
“Mr. Y said video on the 13th is very important. So I wear long-sleeve white shirt with ‘LOL’ print and I make hairstyle like wave and makeup beautifully. Mr. Y said company rent new actor and actress to make more effective video and put on YouTube,” recalled Doan.
Minutes before the assassination at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Hanamori is seen walking toward Siti and Mr. Chang, James’ boss, in the terminal. “Suddenly Mr. Chang said, ‘That’s the one, in the gray jacket,’” said Siti, with the man pointing to Kim Jong-nam. “He gave me the baby oil.” “Mr. Y gave me oil on my hand,” added Doan. “He told me, ‘Don’t look.’ He said, ‘Just look at the actor and actress.’ I saw the new actress put hands on his face from the back. I ran and do the same surprise. I put my hand on his eyes. I say sorry to him. I running and go.”
Prosecutors charged Siti and Doan with the murder, along with four North Korean nationals captured in CCTV footage—Hanamori (Ri Jae-nam, the supposed mastermind), Mr. Chang (Hong Song-hac), Mr. Y (Rhi Ji-hyon), and James (O Jong-gil). Three other suspects—Ri Jong-chol (a chemist), Kim Uk-il (an employee for Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline) and Hyon Kwang-song (a North Korean embassy secretary) were detained and released due to lack of evidence, though the latter two were caught by security cameras guiding the four aforementioned suspects through immigration following the assassination, allowing them to fly back to Pyongyang. The Malaysian authorities, however, remained convinced that Siti and Doan were in on the plot.
But, after combing through thousands of pages of text messages, there was nothing to suggest that Siti or Doan knew anything about an assassination plot—only the “prank videos” they were filming. Neither woman changed out of or even washed their clothes, which they likely would have had they known they were handling a deadly chemical, and surveillance footage shows Siti rubbing the palms of her hands together immediately following the Kim Jong-nam incident, begging the question: if she knew it was VX, then why would she be rubbing it into her hands? Furthermore, Doan returned to the scene of the crime—the Kuala Lumpur International Airport—just two days later on the instructions of Mr. Y, who said they’d be shooting another prank video there. When she got to the airport she couldn’t reach him, and was apprehended by police.
Most of the evidence suggests that the assassination of Kim Jong-nam was a North Korean plot overseen by his power-hungry sibling, Kim Jong-un, who’d not only killed his own uncle but made several attempts on his half-brother’s life in the past. Kim Jong-nam even penned a letter to Kim Jong-un begging him to stop trying to have him killed, saying in part, “Please withdraw the order to punish me and my family. We have nowhere to hide. The only way to escape is to choose suicide.”
In June of 2019, reports surfaced that Kim Jong-nam had been acting as a CIA informant since his half-brother took power, and that he’d met with a CIA agent at a hotel on an island off the coast of Indonesia just four days prior to his death. Authorities later determined from his laptop that data had been removed and placed on a USB drive on the day he met with the CIA agent. He also had $138,000 on him, which could have been payment for the data.
As for Siti and Doan, the star-crossed pawns spent around two years behind bars—in adjoining cells—before they were released to their respective countries.
“Doan and I grew very close over the course of the trial. I always gave my support to her, and she always gave her support to me. When I cried, she would always console me,” Siti says in the film, through tears. “And when she cried, I would do the same for her. I think of her as my own sister.”
The North Korean regime has never formally copped to the Kim Jong-nam assassination, though in late 2018 they reportedly expressed “regret” to Vietnam, a strategic ally, for involving one of their people.