'Assassins' Explores What Happened In Killing Of Kim Jong Un's Half Brother NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with filmmaker Ryan White about his documentary Assassins, which explores the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother at a Malaysian airport.
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'Assassins' Explores What Happened In Killing Of Kim Jong Un's Half Brother

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'Assassins' Explores What Happened In Killing Of Kim Jong Un's Half Brother

'Assassins' Explores What Happened In Killing Of Kim Jong Un's Half Brother

'Assassins' Explores What Happened In Killing Of Kim Jong Un's Half Brother

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/947261100/947261101" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with filmmaker Ryan White about his documentary Assassins, which explores the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother at a Malaysian airport.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

February 2017 - the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un steps into Malaysia's International Airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Kuala Lumpur International Airport...

KELLY: Security cameras capture him strolling through the departures hall and capture the two women who approach from behind, cover his eyes with their hands and smear him with what was later found to be VX nerve agent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: One of the fastest-acting fatal poisons that exists...

KELLY: Within an hour, Kim Jong Nam was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A cold-blooded execution straight from a spy movie...

KELLY: That - that is where the story starts to get strange. A new documentary explores what led to the ambush at the Kuala Lumpur airport and what happened to the two women after. Ryan White is the director of "Assassins."

Ryan White, welcome.

RYAN WHITE: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Before we get into all of the details of this, I wonder if you would just speak to what it has been like to spend two years of your life trying to unravel this crazy set of facts - murder by lethal nerve agent in broad daylight of the brother of the leader of North Korea. And it sounds like as you dug in, what you were finding just kept getting more and more bizarre.

WHITE: Yeah, absolutely. The story began as inconceivable, and then it just got stranger and stranger as we continued to document it over the last two years. So I think like most Americans, I kind of remembered this headline. Like you said in your intro, it was February 2017, so it was just weeks after Trump was inaugurated. So there wasn't the real estate, I think, in the news media to be talking about what normally would be, you know, a top news story for months. One of the biggest political assassinations of our lifetimes quickly dissipated into the ether.

And so it was like that for me as well. I remembered the headline, that it had been two female assassins, but I had no idea what the backstory was, and I definitely had no idea what happened to these two women.

KELLY: OK. Well, let's dive in there. Who were the two women who attacked Kim Jong Nam?

WHITE: So the two women - one is an Indonesian citizen. Her name is Siti Aisyah. And one is a Vietnamese woman named Doan Thi Huong. And if you believe the women, they did not know one another. They literally met at the moment that they touched Kim Jong Nam's face in the airport. And they had VX nerve agent, which is the most dangerous chemical weapon, on their hands. He died within an hour.

And their story is that they had been hired by Japanese YouTube producers to be on a reality prank show and that, in fact, they had been on that show for months leading up to this, being flown all over Southeast Asia, playing pranks on unsuspecting people in malls and airports and being filmed by these Japanese YouTube producers. And their story is that their final prank ended up being a political assassination and that they did not even know that this person was Kim Jong Nam and, in fact, that he even died because of the prank that they played on him.

KELLY: Wow. So it's a lot to take in. Their story is they believed that they were working on - for a Japanese reality TV show and that they did not know that the man they were attacking - they didn't know that they were lethally attacking him, and they didn't know that he was who he was - that he was the half-brother of the dictator of North Korea.

WHITE: And the Japanese YouTube producers ended up being North Korean spies in the end. Yep.

KELLY: May I ask just about - this is one tiny detail of the many strange details here. But if they had this incredibly lethal VX nerve agent smeared on their hands to smear it on him, how did they survive and he died within an hour?

WHITE: Because of how the substance works. So the women were conditioned to wash their hands after they played the pranks. All of the pranks previously, obviously, had not been VX nerve agent. It had been Johnson baby oil, but it was always a sticky substance. So they had been conditioned to wash their hands immediately after they played a prank. And you know, a chemical weapons expert in the trial testifies that if you wash your hands before the substance ever goes into an orifice and into your bloodstream, you can survive.

KELLY: I suppose we should explain a little bit more - just these prank videos - why that would have been a plausible thing - when they were asked to do it, why they thought, yeah, that sounds like something I might sign up for.

WHITE: Well, so the women - we follow the trajectory of both women in the film, but both were seeking a better life using social media. And Doan Thi Huong, who was the Vietnamese woman, had spent the last five or six years in Hanoi desperately trying to be famous. She was on "Vietnamese Idol." And in fact, she was already an actress on viral prank shows in Hanoi. So that is a popular format. There were prank shows playing in the airport where this incident had gone down.

KELLY: Oh, wow.

WHITE: You know, I think it's something that maybe is not as popular in Western culture but is surely prolific in Asia - that that is a popular format of television shows.

KELLY: It sounds like you're left with this complicated set of facts because no one disputes these - including them - that these women killed Kim Jong Nam. But if you believe they were manipulated, that they were tricked, and then meanwhile, you think it's the North Korean regime, which is the real responsible party, they've paid no price at all. How do you think about that? How should we think about that?

WHITE: Well, yeah. In the larger, macro context of this film, there are huge geopolitical forces at play, including the whole history of the Kim regime and why Kim Jong Un inherited the throne instead of his older brother. But whenever we were getting lost in that world of geopolitics, we were always reminding ourselves as filmmakers, our film is about these women and informing the audience of who they are and letting the audience decide whether their defense that they were tricked is conceivable. And so that's my hope at the end of the film - is that audiences will be able to decide for themselves what they think about that.

KELLY: Were you ever nervous digging around, filming this? Ultimately, you believe it was the North Korean regime that ordered this. And if so, this was a regime that felt no compunction about murdering one of their own in broad daylight.

WHITE: Yeah, I mean, I can't ever claim that this was a comfortable film to make. And I am thrilled that we are at the end of it because it was the least fun film I've ever made. I think we felt in danger the entire time we were making the film, whether that was valid or - you know, sometimes you have to wonder whether that's paranoia in some ways. But we were filming a story that we were repeatedly told that we should back off of, you know, from...

KELLY: By who?

WHITE: From the powers that be, whether they were in Malaysia telling us not to be documenting this lawsuit, from journalists who are on the ground there and from people who were involved in the story. So much of our story is detailing the recruitment of these women. And it involves, you know, these undercover sources in the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur. You know, it involves the world of sex work and drugs there.

So these people who might even have unknowingly played a role in recruiting these two women or leading them to a connection to the North Korean operatives who are telling us to back off - but we were so compelled by the idea that these women might be telling the truth that we, you know, were sort of unwilling to give up on it. It was like a dog with a bone in figuring out whether this reality show defense could actually be true.

KELLY: That is director Ryan White. The documentary is "Assassins." It is in theaters now and on video on demand January 15.

Ryan White, thank you.

WHITE: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "CAPTURE THE FLAG")

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