Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother was killed with the banned nerve poison VX, said witnesses in a Malaysian court on Tuesday.
The trial, which began Monday, is looking into the death of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam died Feb. 13, after being accosted at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women who are now accused of his murder.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, who is Vietnamese, are charged with murdering Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX, a chemical poison banned by the United Nations.
The women have pleaded not guilty, saying they thought they were involved in some sort of prank for a reality TV show. They could face the death penalty if convicted. Both suspects wore bullet-proof vests as they went to and from court.
At the airport
Kim Jong Nam, who was 45 or 46, was the eldest son of the North Korean ruling family. He had reportedly fallen out of favour when in 2001 he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport. He said he was trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He also occasionally criticized the regime and Kim Jong Un is believed to have considered his older sibling a potential rival for power.
Kim Jong Nam had lived for years outside of North Korea, travelling under the name “Kim Chol.”
He was at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, waiting for a flight, when he was approached by first one woman, then another, who both smeared something on his face.
Kim, who quickly became ill, arrived at the airport’s medical clinic conscious but in pain, with very high blood pressure and pulse, Nik Mohamad Adzrul Ariff Raja Azlan, the airport’s physician, testified Tuesday. Kim then had seizure-like symptoms and his blood pressure and oxygen levels plummeted. The doctor took some measures to try to stabilize Kim and sent him to the hospital.
Kim died within about 20 minutes of falling ill, doctors said. A medical pathologist found that the cause of death was “acute VX nerve agent poisoning.”
With the texture and feel of engine oil, VX was first produced in the United Kingdom in the 1950s. A single drop can cause convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis and respiratory failure in minutes, say experts.
Reality show prank?
Although the two accused were accused of smearing the poison on Kim with their hands, they were apparently unaffected by it, even though VX can be absorbed through the skin. They also showed no physical evidence, like lowered levels of a specific enzyme, that would indicate that they encountered the poison.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t exposed though, testified a chemical pathologist, as they could have quickly washed it off their hands or taken an antidote — something the lawyer for one of the accused disputes, saying that his client Aisyah’s normal enzyme levels showed she didn’t touch any poison.
Aisyah’s lawyer Gooi Song Seng said that his client believed she was taking part in a prank for a reality TV show. Aisyah’s core defence will be that she didn’t know she had poison on her hand when she smeared Kim’s face and was instead the victim of an elaborate trick, he said.
The 25-year-old was at a pub in Kuala Lumpur in early January when she was recruited by a North Korean man to star in what he said were video prank shows, Gooi said.
Over the course of several days, the North Korean, who went by the name James, had Aisyah go out to malls, hotels and airports and rub oil or pepper sauce on strangers, which he would film on his phone, the lawyer said.
Aisyah was paid $100-$200 for each prank and hoped the income would allow her to stop working as an escort, Gooi said.
In late January, Aisyah flew to Cambodia, where James introduced her to a man called Chang, who said he was the producer of video prank shows for the Chinese market, the lawyer said. Back in Malaysia, Chang asked Aisyah to do several more pranks at the Kuala Lumpur airport a few days before Kim was attacked. At the airport on the day of Kim’s death, Chang pointed him out to Aisyah as the next target and put the poison on her hand, the lawyer said.
WATCH: Footage from airport cameras purportedly showing the assault on the half-brother of the North Korean leader emerged in February 2017
Police say neither Chang nor James was who they say they were. Chang was actually Hong Song Hac, one of four North Korean suspects who left Malaysia on the day of the killing, while James was Ri Ji U, one of another three North Koreans who hid inside their country’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur to avoid questioning.
Those three were later allowed to fly home in exchange for nine Malaysians who were allowed to leave Pyongyang in a deal easing tensions between the countries. Gooi said James was key to Aisyah’s defence and that his absence could weaken her case.
Aisyah, who has a son, wrote to her family and told them to pray for her “so that the case will be over soon and I can go back home.”
The Vietnamese suspect Huong was caught on airport security surveillance camera wearing a white sweatshirt emblazoned with the big black letters “LOL” — the acronym for “laughing out loud.” Little is known about her. Raised on a rice farm in northern Vietnam, her family said they had hardly heard from her since she left home a decade ago.
She made postings on a Facebook page under the name Ruby Ruby, according to her niece, Dinh Thi Quyen.
Photos on the page show Huong wearing a white shirt that says “LOL,” like one seen on security footage during the attack.
Her last post was on the morning of Feb. 11, two days before the attack, from an area near the airport.
The trial continues Wednesday.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press