“Assassins”: A Look at the Strange Assassination of Kim Jong-Nam

Screenshot from Assassins
December 16, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaDocumentaryKim Jong-unAssassinsKim Jong-nam

“Assassins”: A Look at the Strange Assassination of Kim Jong-Nam

Rumors abound as to whether Kim Jong-nam had ties to either China or the CIA.

It’s one of the twenty-first-century’s most bizarre international incidents: On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-Nam, the exiled older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was assassinated in the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The murder was carried out with the rare and deadly nerve agent VX, and it was all caught on video—with the perpetrators apparently a pair of young women.

Even stranger than that? The women swore they had no idea they were participated in an assassination, and actually thought that they were part of a YouTube prank show. They were, almost certainly, patsies for a group of North Korean conspirators who were acting on Kim Jong-un’s orders.

The entire sordid affair is the subject of “Assassins,” a new documentary directed by Ryan White, which is now playing, in theaters virtual and in person. The film explores this wild topic with journalistic precision and is equally concerned with several different types of intrigue: That of the assassination itself, of the multigenerational jockeying for position within the Kim dynasty, and the often tragic backstories of the two women.

The film is assembled from audio transcripts of the trials of the two women, the Indonesian Siti Aisyah and the Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, and also includes some on-camera interviews with their lawyers, as well as a pair of journalists, the Malaysian reporter Hadi Azmi and Anna Fifield, who was the former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post. The filmmakers, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not visit North Korea, although there’s plenty of archival footage from inside the country from throughout the saga.

Kim Jong-Nam was the first-born son of Kim Jong-Il, the older brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and at one point the presumed heir apparent to lead the country. He fell out of favor, in part, due to an incident in which he used a forged passport to attempt to visit Disneyland in Tokyo, causing international embarrassment. This incident, in addition to his advocating for reforms, and led to his eventual exile. The two Kims, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017, never met, despite being brothers; the two men grew up in separate households.

His assassination, which was not the first attempt on Kim Jong-nam’s life, and led to a diplomatic standoff between North Korea and Malaysia, a rare country in the world that actually has diplomatic relations with North Korea. It was later resolved, in part, through a prisoner exchange.

The film goes off in some surprising directions. One reporter puts forth the theory that China was keeping Kim Jong-nam, who lived in Macau, “in reserve,” in the event that Kim Jong-un were ever to be overthrown and China wished to exert its influence. There’s also speculation aired that Kim Jong-nam might have had a working relationship with the CIA (the Journal backed up the latter hypothesis in 2019.) Either way, it appears that Kim Jong-un saw his older brother as a threat.

Assassins debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was part of a few different virtual film festivals throughout the year. Moreover, the documentary was picked up for (virtual) distribution by indie film company Magnolia Pictures and Greenwich Entertainment.

The filmmaker, Ryan White, is a prolific documentarian who most recently made last year’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth,” and another documentary that appeared at film festivals this year, “The Capote Tapes.” He also made the Netflix crime series “The Keepers,” as well as a series for Apple TV+, “Visible: Out on Television.”

Overall, “Assassins” is an intriguing, well-put-together documentary about a story that’s almost too strange believe.

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Screenshot from Assassins.