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Nothing to do with the 1990 musical by Stephen Sondheim about the people throughout history who have tried to kill the US president … yet maybe this film should itself be turned into a musical or opera. It is a documentary about the extraordinary 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, who had been living in exile in China and was not merely a persistent critic of the regime but seen as a possible alternative ruler.
Bizarrely, Kim Jong-nam was killed by having VX nerve agent smeared in his face in Kuala Lumpur international airport’s departure hall by two young women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Houng – from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively – who had been duped by North Korean agents posing as TV producers into thinking they were filming a hidden-camera prank show. The Malaysian government quickly and timidly allowed the North Koreans to go free when the regime effectively held Malaysian embassy staff hostage with their families in Pyongyang. So that left the two vulnerable young women facing a mandatory death penalty for murder, just so the Malaysian legal system could indict someone and save face.
It is a gripping story, well told by documentary film-maker Ryan White, with the help of two journalists who covered it at the time: Bloomberg reporter Hadi Azmi and the Washington Post’s former Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield. There is something genuinely chilling about the way the North Koreans groomed and gaslit their two young victims, making them do dozens of supposed pranks on people over many months, with regular payment and spurious reassurance: eerie dummy-run stunts, just to get them used to the technique.
Aisyah and Huong were manipulated like young women being sex-trafficked and, in the strangest, unknowing way, like jihadis being schooled for a big attack. (The nerve-agent element has an extra resonance for the UK after the Russians’ novichok outrage in Salisbury in 2018.) Only the state has access to chemical weapons, and their use is designed to send a sickening message of triumphalism and nationalism.
What an extraordinary story of sexism, violence, diplomatic bad faith and dishonesty on an international scale. One question remains: who had the bizarre yet satanically clever idea of a fake prank show? And how is it that the North Koreans, supposedly marooned in their Soviet past, managed to dream up something dripping with contemporary media irony? It could be down to a certain mysterious Japanese national who was identified as an accomplice, but never tracked down. Perhaps a true-crime podcast should now be devoted to finding him.
• Assassins is available on digital platforms from 29 January.
Source: The Guardian
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