Assassination of Kim Jong-nam

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Assassination of Kim Jong-nam
Location Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, Malaysia
Date 13 February 2017 (2017-02-13)
Target Kim Jong-nam
Weapons VX nerve agent
Victim Kim Jong-nam
Perpetrators Rhi Ji-hyon,
Hong Song-hac,
O Jong-gil,
Ri Jae-nam
Inquiry Ongoing

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam occurred on 13 February 2017 when two women attacked him with VX nerve agent, a lethal chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. Kim Jong-nam was the eldest son of deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the half-brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Analysts believe that Kim Jong-nam was likely murdered on the orders of Kim Jong-un.[1][2]

Attack at the airport

Kim arrived in Malaysia on 6 February 2017, traveling to the resort island of Langkawi on 8 February.[3][4] On 13 February 2017 at about 9am,[5] Kim was attacked by two women[6] with VX nerve agent near an airport self check-in kiosk at level 3, departure hall in KLIA 2, the low-cost carrier terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport[7] during his return trip to Macau. VX is a chemical weapon banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. North Korea, which has not ratified the Convention, is suspected of holding a stockpile.[8][9][10][11]

Malaysian police said that Kim had alerted an airport receptionist, saying "someone had grabbed him from behind and splashed a liquid on his face" and that a woman "covered his face with a cloth laced with a liquid".[12][5] Kim was treated at the hospital in the Menara Medical Clinic by nurse Rabiatul Adawiyah Mohd Sofi and Dr. Nik Mohd Adzrul Ariff Raja Azlan, who later testified that he was sweaty, in pain, and unresponsive.[12][13] At the clinic, Kim was given 1mg of atropine, and also adrenaline.[14] Kim required tracheal intubation, and the saliva, vomit and blood in his mouth needed to be suctioned out.[14]

A resuscitation device was strapped to Kim's face, and he was then transported by stretcher through the authorized-personnel-only area of the airport to reach an ambulance.[15] Kim died while being transferred from the airport to the Putrajaya Hospital.[6][16][17]

As he was travelling under the pseudonym "Kim Chol", Malaysian officials did not immediately formally confirm that Kim Jong-nam was the man killed.[11][18] Kim's extensive Facebook usage under this pseudonym since at least 2010, and usage of commercial email services for communications, may have made it easier for North Korean agents to seek his whereabouts and track his movements.[19] At the time of his death, Kim's backpack contained approximately $100,000 in cash, and he was carrying four North Korean passports, all bearing the name Kim Chol.[20][21]

On 14 February Malaysian police arrested a 28-year-old Vietnamese woman named Đoàn Thị Hương at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in connection with the attack.[18] Hương was identified through CCTV footage.[22] On 16 February, a 25-year-old Indonesian woman named Siti Aisyah was arrested and identified as the second female suspect.[23] Aisyah's boyfriend, a 26-year-old Malaysian named Muhammad Farid bin Jalaluddin,[nb 1] was also arrested on 16 February to assist in the investigation.[20][24]

Hương told the police that she was instructed by four men who were travelling with them to spray Kim with an unidentified liquid while Aisyah held and covered his face with a handkerchief as part of a prank. She claimed that after she returned to look for the others, they had disappeared, and thus she decided to head back to the airport the next day.[25]

On 17 February, police arrested a 46-year-old North Korean man named Ri Jong-chol.[26][27] He was described as an IT worker for Tombo Enterprise, living in Malaysia.[28]

International reactions

South Korea

Kim Myung-yeon, a spokesperson for South Korea's ruling party, described the killing as a "naked example of Kim Jong-un's reign of terror".[29]

The South Korean government accused the North Korean government of being the responsible party for conducting Kim Jong-nam's assassination, and drew a parallel with the execution of Kim Jong-un's own uncle and others.[30][31] The government later held an emergency security council meeting in which they condemned the murder of Kim Jong-nam.[32]

The acting President of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-ahn, said that if the murder of Kim Jong-nam was confirmed to be masterminded by North Korea, that would clearly depict the brutality and inhumanity of the Kim Jong-un regime.[32]

United States

North Korea was relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States of America on 20 November 2017, with the assassination cited as one of the reasons.[33]

In March 2018, the United States Department of State imposed additional sanctions on North Korea, having asserted that North Korea used VX nerve gas to assassinate Kim Jong-nam.[34][35]

Other reactions

Following the incident a self-described "hacktivist" known as Cyber Anakin took advantage of an error on a North Korean propaganda website which erroneously linked to a non-existent Twitter account. He registered a spoof account under that empty username and posted numerous anti-regime propagandas.[36][37][38]

Autopsy

An autopsy was conducted despite North Korean diplomats objecting to any such procedure on Kim's body.[22] Malaysian officials later commented that the autopsy proceeded as the North Korean diplomats failed to submit a formal protest.[24] A post-mortem on Kim was conducted on 15 February at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital mortuary in the presence of several North Korean officials,[39] and concluded the following day, formally confirming the identity of Kim's body.[24] The autopsy was conducted by pathologist Mohamad Shah Mahmood of Kuala Lumpur Hospital, who testified that Kim's lungs, brain, liver and spleen were affected by the poison.[40] Chemical pathologist Nur Ashikin Othman[nb 2] testified that Kim's urine showed the effects of being exposed to the poison.[40] Low levels of cholinesterase indicated that Jong-nam had been exposed to an insecticide or nerve agent.[14][41] Forensic consultant Dr. Nurliza bte Abdullah testified that Jong-nam's pupil constriction, and the feces in his underwear, suggested he had been poisoned.[42][43]

On 24 February, Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar announced that a post-mortem toxicology report had found traces of the nerve agent VX on Kim's face.[9] According to experts, the use of VX gas may explain why two assailants were involved, because each assailant "could have wiped two or more precursors" in Kim's face.[8] This is referred to as a binary chemical weapon.[44][45] This method could ensure that the assailants were not themselves killed by the poison, which can be fatal in very small amounts; additionally, smuggling the chemical components into Malaysia separately could have helped avoid detection.[8][44][46] Aisyah reported she vomited in the taxi afterward and has continued to feel unwell.[16]

Chemical weapons experts Jean-Pascal Zanders and Richard Guthrie noted that the reported effects were not entirely consistent with the potency of VX – Jong-Nam was able to walk to the medical station without suffering spasms, paramedics were not affected, the assailants survived, and there were no other reports of injury even though the scene of the attack was not cleaned for over a week. VX degrades rapidly in storage and North Korea's supplies are believed to be several years old, which could explain the apparent weakness of the chemical.[47]

On 10 March, police completed the autopsy, confirming that the body belonged to Kim Jong-nam based on DNA provided by his son Kim Han-sol,[48] and the body was handed to the Ministry of Health for further action.[49] The Health Ministry said they would then give Kim's family two to three weeks to claim his body,[50] with the body having been embalmed to preserve it during the period.[51] The family, however, declined to take the body and gave the Malaysian authorities permission to manage the remains.[52] Over objections of Kim Han-sol, the body was flown to Pyongyang on 31 March.[53] Kim's blazer, backpack and watch were initially submitted to a police chemistry department for analysis, but subsequently returned to officials from the North Korean embassy.[21]

Diplomatic protest

Following Malaysia's refusal to release the body immediately, North Korea's ambassador Kang Chol accused Malaysia of collaborating with the country's enemies over the assassination of Kim Jong-nam.[54] The ambassador said they would reject the outcome of the post-mortem conducted "on its citizen without permission" and perceived the decision as a "violation of human rights", and thus would lodge a complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).[26] The ambassador was summoned by the government of Malaysia on 20 February, while the Malaysian ambassador to North Korea was recalled.[55]

The ambassador then responded that they cannot trust the investigation by Malaysian police, noting there had been no evidence of the cause of death even a week after the attack. He also proposed that North Korea and Malaysia should open a joint investigation together in order to prevent influence from South Korea which, he said, is trying to malign North Korea as the party responsible for the killing.[56] Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak responded to the ambassador that his country will be objective in the investigation and assured the North Korean side that they do not have reason to paint North Korea in a bad light while rejecting the request for joint investigation.[57][58] On 22 February, Malaysian police said there was evidence of an attempted break-in at the mortuary where Kim's body was being held.[59]

The North Korean government rejected all findings, accused the Malaysian police of "fabricating evidence" in collusion with South Korea and demanded the release of the three people being held in connection with the death.[60]

North Korean–Malaysian dispute

On 28 February, the North Korean government dispatched a high level delegation to Malaysia.[61] North Korea said the claim that VX nerve agent was used to kill one of its citizens is "absurd" and lacked scientific basis, portraying it as an allegation jointly made by the United States and South Korea to tarnish its image,[62] adding that the death was caused by a "heart attack" as Kim Jong-nam has a record of heart disease. The North Koreans stressed that if it was indeed caused by the chemical it should be proven by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.[63] Malaysian police immediately rejected the North Korean claims.[64] However, in a statement released by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry, the country said it was already co-operating with OPCW.[65][11]

Malaysia announced that from 6 March they will cancel visa-free entry for North Koreans, citing "security issues".[66] On 4 March, the North Korean ambassador Kang Chol was declared "persona non grata" and asked to leave within 48 hours,[67] with a similar move having been imposed by North Korea towards the Malaysian ambassador.[68] The North Korean authorities also reacted on 7 March by barring all Malaysian citizens in North Korea from leaving.[69] Malaysian authorities imposed reciprocal measures, prohibiting North Korean citizens from leaving Malaysia.[70]

On 30 March, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that all Malaysians in North Korea as well as North Koreans in Malaysia would be allowed to return to their home countries after the receipt of a letter from Kim's family requesting his remains be returned to North Korea.[71]

Further investigations

According to lead police investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz, Kim Jong-nam told a driver in 2016 that he feared his life was in danger.[72]

One of the suspects, Siti Aisyah, had been in Malaysia at least a day before the attack, reportedly to celebrate her birthday with her friends.[73] Aisyah was a divorced mother who worked as a spa masseuse in Kuala Lumpur. She regularly returned to Indonesia to meet her mother and son. She told her mother that she found a better job as an actress in prank video for the Chinese market.[74] After Hương and Aisyah were arrested, they claimed they thought they were participating in a prank.[75] According to both suspects, they were told to spray people in the vicinity with baby oil, one target being Kim Jong-nam.[76] The pair were promised US$100, but, losing contact with their handlers, they never received the money.[77]

According to their lawyers, Hương was recruited in December 2016 in Hanoi, Vietnam, while Aisyah was recruited in January 2017 by a Malaysian scout working for the North Koreans. The women were handled by separate teams of North Korean men, who posed as being from Japan and China, one of the recruiters being Ri Ji-u.[77] Since their recruitment, Aisyah had performed the prank on at least 10 occasions. She was flown to Phnom Penh to perform the prank three times with an offer of US$200, while Hương performed it four times in locations including the airport terminals and Mandarin Oriental hotel in Kuala Lumpur.[77] The Malaysian police retrieved a photo of "James" from Siti Aisyah's phone. He was later identified as Ri Ji-u.[78] The police searched for him but he was already in the North Korean embassy.[74]

On 19 February, Malaysian police named four more North Korean suspects.[79] They were identified as Rhi Ji-hyon (aged 33), Hong Song-hac (34), O Jong-gil (55) and Ri Jae-nam (57), all of whom left Malaysia after the attack, and the Malaysian police requested help from Interpol and other relevant authorities in tracking them.[80] According to an unnamed source, the four suspects flew to Jakarta, Dubai and Vladivostok before reaching Pyongyang.[81][82] Three other male North Korean suspects were still in Malaysia: Ri Ji-u, who had lived in Malaysia for three years; Kim Uk-il, an employee in Air Koryo; Hyon Kwang-song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy.[83][84] These suspects had taken refuge in the North Korean embassy.[85][86]

On 22 February, Malaysian police chief Khalid said that the killing was "a planned effort" and that the two women arrested had been trained to carry out the attack and had repeatedly rehearsed it together at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC).[84] Khalid also alleged that the women apparently knew they were handling poisonous substances.[84] That same day, an unnamed Malaysian man believed to be a chemist was picked up by police during a raid on a condominium where he then led police to another condominium where various chemicals were seized.[87]

On 28 February, both women were charged with murder, which carries a mandatory death sentence.[76][88] A lawyer for Hương requested a second autopsy as he doubted Malaysian expertise, calling for experts from Japan and Iraq as well pathologists from North Korea itself to be involved.[89] The Malaysian police responded by telling the lawyer to appeal to the high court.[90]

On 3 March, the only detained North Korean suspect, Ri Jong-chol, was released and deported due to lack of evidence.[91] While in transit through China, he told the media that the Malaysian police threatened to hurt his family if he did not confess his involvement in the murder and said his arrest was part of a "conspiracy".[92][93] Malaysian police strongly denied his allegation.[94][95]

On 16 March, Interpol issued a red notice for the four North Korean suspects who had fled to Pyongyang.[96] The three North Korean suspects, Ri Ji-u, Kim Uk-il and Hyon Kwang-song, who were holed up in the North Korean embassy in Malaysia, were released on 30 March and allowed to return home after investigators interviewed them and cleared them of any wrongdoing.[97]

On 22 March, Yonhap News Agency released an information stating that Rhi Ji-hyon, one of the four suspects who left Malaysia after the attack (the man with a cap on the photo from the airport CCTV), is the son of former North Korean ambassador to Vietnam Ri Hong. From November 2009, he worked as a trainee diplomat in Hanoi for more than a year before becoming an interpreter for another few years. With his ability to converse fluently in Vietnamese language, he is suspected of having seduced and lured the Vietnamese national Hương into a fake TV prank, making her believe that he is a rich South Korean man.[98][99] On the request of the Judicial Authorities of Malaysia, Interpol had published a red notice for Rhi Ji-hyon for his involvement in the murder plot.[100]

According to the forensics investigation, Kim had a Dell laptop which had accessed data stored on a USB pen drive while he was in Langkawi, though the pen drive was not in his possession when he died.[101]

Trial

The murder trial of Siti Aisyah and Đoàn Thị Hương began on 2 October 2017 at the High Court in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia, with both pleading not guilty.[102][103] Judge Datuk Azmi Ariffin was the presiding judge.[104]

A Malaysian government chemist, Dr. Raja Subramaniam, who has PhD in chemical weapons analysis from Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) testified before the court that traces of the VX nerve agent thought to be used in the assassination were found on the two women, such as on Hương’s white jumper, Hương fingernails (degradation product of VX) and on Aisyah’s sleeveless T-shirt (VX acid, also a degradation product of VX).[105][106] The testimony was the first evidence to provide a link between the defendants and the VX nerve agent.[105] A pathologist Mohamad Shah Mahmood told the court that VX was the sole cause of death. According to Mohamad, based on a post-mortem report, toxicology tests found traces of six types of drugs (including a Viagra-type drug) in Kim's body that are used to treat diabetes, hypertension and gout, while the autopsy found no sign Kim had a heart attack as been alleged by North Korean authorities before.[107] The pathologist explained that those drugs and its conditions would not have caused Kim's swift death and testimony showed Kim died within two hours of being attacked, not within 20 minutes as earlier stated by Malaysia's health ministry, also stating the fastest absorption of VX would have been through the eye mucus.[106] Under cross-examination by both defence lawyers, Mohamad however acknowledged he had limited knowledge on the nerve agents in general and said he didn't know the amount of the poison that was used.[107]

Another chemical pathologist, Nur Ashikin Othman, told the court that tests on Kim's blood showed a very low level of 344 units per litre of cholinesterase enzyme and said it could be caused by poison such as pesticide or nerve agent with blood tests on both defendants only found normal enzyme levels, although this does not conclusively show they were not exposed to VX as the women may have been in contact with the nerve agent at a low concentration or may have decontaminated themselves by washing their hands with soap or taken an antidote.[108] Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital doctor Ranjini Sivaganabalan, a specialist in poisons, testified that VX may not be fatal in very low dosages and disagreed with an assertion that as little as 10 milligrams of VX would be lethal to humans while claiming that a person with VX on their hands may not be fully decontaminated by washing it off with soap and water.[107][109] Toxicologist K. Sharmilah testified that vials of atropine, a drug used as an antidote to poisoning with nerve agents such as VX, were found in Kim Jong-nam's bag.[110][111] On 8 October, the trial had to be moved to a high-security laboratory due to danger posed by the nerve agent-tainted clothing admitted into evidence.[15]

Police investigator Wan Azirul identified four suspects in the CCTV as – Mr. Chang (identified as Hong Song-hac), Mr. Y (Rhi Ji-hyon), James (O Jong-gil), and Hanamori (a.k.a. “Grandpa” and “Uncle”) (Ri Jae-nam).[112] The men were not arrested because Malaysian police did not have sufficient information to identify or locate the suspects, according to investigating officer Wan Azirul and Deputy Public Prosecutor Wan Shaharuddin Wan Ladin.[113]

When the trial resumed in January 2018, Justice Azmi Ariffin ruled that certain CCTV records could not be admitted as evidence.[114][115] On 14 March, Hương lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik presented a recorded statement from Nguyễn Bích Thủy, a bar owner and Hương’s friend to the Vietnamese police on 1 March 2017, detailing how Hương was recruited by a man named as "Li" (identified as Rhi Ji-hyon).[nb 3] Through the statement, Thủy said:

Me and Hương used to work together as waitresses at the Seventeen Bar in Hanoi from 2014 to May 2016. On 27 December 2016, Li (Rhi Ji-hyon) came to the Hay Bar in Hanoi that was run by me and my husband. Li claimed he had a Korean father and Vietnamese mother and that he was married but divorced with no children. He offered me a job as an actress but I refused because I need to take care of my young son. Li then asked me to introduce him to one of her friends. I remembered Hương loved acting and contacted her. When Hương came by the bar to meet Li, I heard him telling Hương that his team was making prank videos at the airport and she was required to “dress nicely, pass by another person and pour a cup of liquid on his/her head”.[116]

During the cross examination, the defence lawyer also produced an affidavit Thủy had made last October that also contained her police statement.[116][117] The Malaysian police lead investigator Wan Azirul then came under fire from the lawyer after he admitted not seeking out Thủy even though the accused (Hương) had mentioned her in her statement, with the lawyer said “In doing an investigation you are supposed to look for the truth, but your investigation is only focused on the CCTV footage. The truth is there (in Vietnam) but no one in Malaysia is interested”.[116][117][118] The lawyer also told that in November he had asked the Malaysian attorney general's office for assistance in convincing Thủy to travel to Malaysia to testify about her role in introducing Hương to the North Korean man. The request was however declined with another attorney representing Hương, Salim Bashir said “It's unfortunate that the attorney general declined to exercise his power to do this and in doing that deprived us of having the opportunity for police to go to Vietnam and investigate”.[117] Salim added that the fact that security videos showed Hương appeared to be touching her hair briefly after approaching Kim and going to a toilet farther away to wash her hands showed an “innocent mind” and not the conduct of someone who knew she had poison on her hand.[119] According to lawyer Hisyam, Thủy also turned down efforts by Vietnamese police and defence lawyers to travel to Malaysia to testify for Hương, citing her responsibility in running her bar with her husband and taking care of her young child.[117]

Meanwhile on the Siti Aisyah side according to her lawyer Gooi Soon Seng, he slammed Malaysian investigators for not allowing him to meet Aisyah during her 14-day remand and not releasing portions of the video linked to the attack as well for the authorities failure to copy all the footage from the CCTV server of the airport which compromised the defence of Aisyah.[117][118] The lawyer blamed the police for not publishing the entire incident of the video during the attack as it was seen during the trials that police had deliberately cut off the key moments of the killing from the video that the accused (Aisyah) was adjusting glasses after attacking the victim (to which the footage of Aisyah wearing sunglasses was dropped as evidence is not appropriate when police are trying to convict his client of murder).[120][121][122] The lawyer adding that police has failed to investigate crucial evidence such as Aisyah's jeans and glasses that were not sent for lab tests. Based on a chemistry department test also showing that Aisyah's finger nail cuttings, nail swabs and blood found no traces of VX.[117][118]

Both defence lawyers agreed that their clients did not know they were handling poison and made a scapegoat moreover with the absence of the four North Korean suspects.[119][123] Through the trial from 20 March, Hisyam screened a video of CCTV recorded at Noi Bai International Airport on 2 February 2017 on her client played a prank on a Vietnamese government official named Trịnh Ngọc Linh in Hanoi less than two weeks before the attack, which showed her approaching the man from behind and putting her arms around his neck.[123][124] Another video screened by the lawyer showing Hương acting as the victim of pranks played by a Vietnamese filmmaker, Nguyễn Mạnh Quang (also known as Quang Bek).[125] Through an affidavit made by Quang, Quang said he had hired Hương to act in the video, which recorded in 2016.[123] The lawyer then explained that "these videos explain why the accused identified herself as an actress" and questioned police investigator Wan Azirul if he "made some efforts to track Quang after receiving affidavits and ask if the task was important or that it was a waste of time" which was replied by "no efforts was made and agreeing to the latter question".[126] The Malaysian police investigator however deny the blame that with the absence of four North Korean suspects their investigation had caused prejudice, insisting that "as for the case, the main perpetrators who committed the killing are the two accused", as well denying on the accusation that Malaysian police didn't take adequate measures to pursue the four men, stressing that Interpol had issued an alert for the four men to be arrested based on Malaysia’s request.[119] After been questioned by another Hương lawyer Naran Singh during the session hearing, the police investigator admitted there was a mistake in his investigation due to pressure from previous Malaysian police chief Khalid though Wan Azirul still declining the claim that his investigation is controlled by his superior.[127][128]

Closing arguments in the trial began on June 27, 2018.[129]

Notes

  1. ^ Alternatively transliterated as Muhammad Farid Jalaluddin.[20]
  2. ^ Alternatively transliterated as Nur Asyikin Osman.[14]
  3. ^ “Li” was the name that Rhi Ji-hyon introduced himself as to Thủy.[116]

References

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  2. ^ Patricia Bauer, Kim Jong-Nam, Encyclopedia Britannica (last updated May 6, 2018): "analysts believed that the murder was likely to have been ordered by Kim Jong-Un."
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