The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam's Assassination
Two women had the most audacious task. Killing the brother of the North Korean leader. Right out in the open, using deadly chemical weapons in an international airport. And the craziest thing? They had no idea what they'd gotten into.
Words: Doug Bock Clark
photo: Siti Aisyah's mother and father in Serang, Indonesia
Siti was recruited by the North Koreans at 3 A.M. on January 5, 2017, outside a notorious bar in Kuala Lumpur. On paper, she worked as a masseuse in the Flamingo Hotel's spa, but when I visited in July, a worker immediately asked, “You want to sleep with a Thai or Indonesian girl?” Later, one of Siti's friends laughed when I said I'd heard she'd given massages there, declaring, “She was totally sex!”
She was born in 1992 in Ranca Sumur, a hamlet located in the conservative heartland of Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country. Ranca Sumur's approximately 500 inhabitants raised rice and water buffalo. Siti grew up scouring the nearby forest for firewood, bathing in streams, and catching crickets, skewering them on bamboo slivers and roasting them over coals.
Each year thousands of Indonesian women like Siti set off for new lives in cities like Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur.
She was named after the Prophet's favorite wife, “Mother of the Believers,” and her neighbors remember her as a quiet and religious girl. She usually arrived 10 to 20 minutes early to the terra-cotta-tiled mosque for services because her father often sang the call to prayer. At age 9, she put on a headscarf to attend the town's newly opened religious school, which today is sponsored by a hard-line Islamic organization identified by many experts as a terrorist group.
So when Siti was 14, a relative arranged work for her at a small sweatshop in a tenement neighborhood in Jakarta. Her world shrank to three pasteboard-walled rooms stuffed with sewing machines and mountains of cloth. She labored 13-hour days for $50 a month, sweeping the thousand square feet and snipping untamed threads from knockoff high-end dresses. The steam from an industrial iron she wielded to package each dress turned her unventilated corner into a hellish sauna. But she could only stare at the factory's single faraway window barred with rusted iron. The bosses were known for keeping the door locked, so she rarely escaped.
Siti might never have looked beyond the oceanic paddies surrounding her home if Jakarta, the country's nearby capital, had not been exploding into a modern metropolis of 30 million inhabitants. Many villagers viewed city life as irreligious and dangerous, but not Siti, whose vision of a glamorous and cosmopolitan city was shaped by what she glimpsed on TV. As Benah, Siti's mother, told me, “Jakarta was her irresistible desire.”
Less than a mile away, at a skyscraper mall, rich Jakartans sipped Starbucks. But as many migrants have discovered recently, that gap between moving to the city and succeeding there is often too great to bridge. As one young man working in Siti's former sweatshop told me, gesturing to the mound of dress scraps he slept on as a bed, “City life looks nice on TV, but then you live like this.”
For Siti, Kuala Lumpur must have seemed like a bizarre version of Jakarta, sharing a language and culture—but much wealthier and run on the backs of migrants. The NGO Migrant Care calculates that around 400,000 Indonesians a year make a similar journey legally and that an additional 600,000 do so illegally.
Some evenings, Siti would finish at the spa, get dolled up, and then take a taxi downtown to the Beach Club. In front of the kitschy surf café serving rubbery pizzas to European families, she joined dozens of skimpily dressed Indonesian and Vietnamese women smoking and checking the time on their phones. But at 10:30 P.M. sharp every night, as the last mothers shepherded their children to bed, the club music began to blare, the fog machine was deployed, and the working girls catwalked in.
Siti was recruited by the North Koreans at 3 A.M. on January 5, 2017, outside a notorious bar in Kuala Lumpur.
At the base of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur is a luxury mall. It is here that her North Korean "Johns" instructed Siti to perform pranks, being told she was on T.V. , training to become a star.
According to Siti's lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, before long, “Siti [became] tired of her present career, and that she looked forward to the new life of being a star.” She bragged to acquaintances that she was going to be a celebrity. When a friend video-called Siti on her birthday and joked with her that she would soon outshine a famous Malaysian actress, Siti agreed, laughing and jauntily flipping her hair.
During an evening in Ranca Sumur, about 50 men in Islamic formalwear knelt on the porch of Siti's home and an imam dirged the Prayer of Mercy and Protection, silencing the night frogs. Incrementally, the men echoed him, until the whole community prayed.
The chorus intensified until the men were yelling and Asria's face was transfixed between rapture and anguish as he shouted for his daughter to be delivered. What mattered to him was not the baffling geopolitical intrigue that had discarded her as a pawn. What mattered to him was that she returned home.