‘The most diabolical masterminds’: Documentary director on how 2 women killed Kim Jong-un’s half brother

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

A new documentary, “Assassins,” delves into the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Security cameras caught two young women, Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisya, approaching Kim in a busy Malaysian airport and wiping a substance onto his face, which turned out to be a lethal nerve agent called VX. He died within the hour. The women were arrested a few days later and accused of murder. Who were they, and how did they pull this off? 

The documentary hits premium video on demand (Amazon, iTunes, etc.) this Friday. 

“When arrested, they said, ‘Yes, we did that to that man. But we thought we were playing a prank on a reality show. And in fact, we didn't even know that that man died.’ So it's a totally inconceivable story, sort of the most absurd defense we've ever heard for a political assassination,” says the film’s director Ryan White. 

Doan Thi Huong was an educated woman from Hanoi, Vietnam, but she wasn’t using her degree, White explains. She spent the last five or six years seeking fame, modeling and appearing on viral prank shows. While waitressing at a bar, she was approached by a man who claimed to be Japanese and asked if she wanted to be a part of a prank show.

Siti Aisya was from Indonesia. She attended school until the sixth grade and then worked in a sweatshop in Jakarta, White says. As a single mother, she was constantly seeking a better life and better paycheck. She came to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, because she was promised a job. It ended up being in the sex trade. 

White says that she was making $5-10 a day, so when she was approached with the idea of making $100 for playing a prank, it was alluring because she was sending money back home to her family.

White says the central question of his film is whether the prank show was a ruse to cover up this assassination. But he can’t unequivocally answer it, and he was skeptical from the beginning.  

“This assassination happened in February of 2017. … Almost four years ago was Donald Trump's first full month in office. … Nobody knows the backstory because … Donald Trump was dominating the airwaves. And so I was one of those people who just assumed these women were trained assassins,” he says.

Mug shots of Siti Aisyah (left) and Doan Thi Huong (right) in “Assassins.” Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

When asked if he is convinced these women were innocent, White says, “I would say these women would have to be the most diabolical masterminds to have pulled it off. … I watched the case that the prosecution put on. They didn't show one shred of evidence that was convincing that these women were aware of what they were doing, or that they were aware that they were working for the North Korean regime.”

He continues, “For these women to be guilty, you would have to assume that a woman from Indonesia and a woman from Vietnam were so dedicated to the North Korean regime for some reason that they were willing to risk their lives, get caught, and then face the death penalty, all on behalf of the Kim regime. And that's already sort of inconceivable. … I have never seen a shred of evidence that points to their guilt. And so I might have been fooled. But I would strongly wager that these women were duped into doing this.” 

What's the theory for why Kim Jong-un wanted to get rid of his half brother? Kim Jong-nam was always going to be a threat, White says. 

“He [Kim Jong-nam] was not only questioning his brother's legitimacy, he also had connections to the two foreign governments that most directly threatened Kim Jong-un's power. And that was China because he was living in Macau under the protection of China. And that was the U.S., which is a revelation in our film that Kim Jong-nam was, in fact, working as a CIA informant. And he was actually in Malaysia to meet with a CIA agent. And he was on his way back from that meeting when he was assassinated, like on his body was $138,000, which was presumed to be payment that came out of that meeting with the CIA.”

He continues, “Many people wonder whether North Korea was tracking his meetings with the CIA — we know Malaysia was aware of them — and whether this caused North Korea to finally pull the trigger, so to speak, that Kim Jong-nam had taken it too far.”