The assassination of Kim Jong-nam might have taken many by surprise, but the victim in fact knew his days were numbered.
At the time of his murder in a Kuala Lumpur airport in February, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was carrying on him an antidote for VX, the fast-acting nerve agent that killed him.
That’s one of the more intriguing details heard this week by Malaysia’s High Court as it considers the case of two women accused of conspiring with four North Korean fugitives in the murder. The women—Siti Aisyah of Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam—took turns approaching Kim from behind and rubbing the chemicals onto his face. They claim they’d been led to believe it was for a prank TV show, but Malaysian authorities believe they were trained by North Korean agents.
Why Kim didn’t attempt to use the antidote, antropine, is unclear at this point. But the nerve agent acts quickly: Kim was dead within about 15 minutes of it being applied.
In any case, it was clear to him long before then that he was a target. In 2012 Kim wrote a letter to his half-brother begging him to spare his life, having already dodged several assassination attempts. But he was the elder brother and thus posed a possible threat to his younger brother, who took power in 2011 and quickly proved himself to be ruthless. In 2013, Kim Jong-un had his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek arrested and executed, among others.
Earlier this year, a South Korean intelligence director testified to lawmakers in Seoul that Pyongyang had been trying to kill the elder Kim for five years. So it was, perhaps, only a matter of time, as Kim Jong-nam seems to have known.