When Kim Jong Nam was killed in what appeared to be a chemical weapons attack while transiting through an airport in Malaysia in February, it captured the world’s attention.
Eyes immediately looked toward his reclusive homeland and his younger half-brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been consolidating his power by ousting, even killing, possible rivals. But Kim, of course, didn’t kill his half-brother himself. Two women were suspected of delivering the chemicals that delivered the fatal blow.
Reporter Doug Bock Clark wanted to find out more about the two women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong. Clark spoke with PRI’s The World about the challenges he encountered trying to report the story.
PRI’s The World: Your piece in GQ is an in-depth, thorough examination of what transpired behind the scenes in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. What made you want to dig into this story?
Doug Bock Clark: I have lived and worked in Indonesia for about three years. I knew many people who were migrants to Kuala Lumpur and to other parts of Malaysia. When I saw the story about the assassination and when I saw the broad details of Siti’s life starting to emerge, I felt that something was not adding up with the portrait the media were drawing of them as very cold and calculating assassins. It seemed unlikely to me, knowing many people who had lived through Siti’s circumstances and had similar levels of education and knowledge about international affairs and what was happening in the outside world. So, I decided to investigate.
PRI’s The World: Why did you decide to follow Siti Aisyah’s footsteps as opposed to Doan Thi Huong’s?
Doug Bock Clark: I chose Siti because I am significantly more familiar with Indonesia and with the context of her life and with economic migrants from Indonesia than I was from Vietnam. I already had a lot of contacts in that region, and I speak Bahasa fluently.
PRI’s The World: What was the biggest challenge in trying to pull this story together — especially in trying to reconstruct events with Siti and her life?
Doug Bock Clark: First, what made it very helpful was there was a huge amount of CCTV footage of the attack as well as some social media presence from both women. Those gave me a launching pad. I could see exactly what happened — I could see who was involved with everything, and I could see where they had lived. So, the challenge became getting people to talk about a story they were very, very afraid of, then locating people who were often not excited to come forward or who lived in fairly remote places. I went to three different countries. I was everywhere from the sweatshops and slums of Jakarta to the rural backwoods of Java, Indonesia, to the nightclubs and whorehouses of Kuala Lumpur. The difficulty was just getting people to be honest and to talk about something they were very nervous about.
PRI’s The World: What stands out most about what you learned about Siti Aisyah? Do you think she and Doan are guilty? Why or why not?
Doug Bock Clark: From my reporting, she seemed to be as much a victim as anyone in this situation. I think North Korea’s willingness to use her and then throw her away really highlights their ruthlessness and their willingness to destroy people’s lives for their own power and purposes.
PRI’s The World: Do you believe Siti was duped, as she claims? Or is this her defense?
Doug Bock Clark: I think it is very unlikely that she acted with intention. I would like to see the full evidence come out at trial, but I can say with confidence that I’ve gone deeper on this story than anyone else has and I can also say with confidence that I think it’s very unlikely that she murdered him with intention.
PRI’s The World: Any big, lingering questions in your mind, about this case? Or about Siti’s story?
Doug Bock Clark: I would love to learn more about some of the North Korean agents. My article does not delve deeply into them, though I was able to uncover some of their history and some of their past interactions with these women. And as the trial moves forward, we’re going to see a fascinating portrait of a very sophisticated and highly coordinated assassination plot.
PRI’s The World: Did you ever feel like it was dangerous for you, trying to learn more about Siti and Doan and their involvement in Kim Jong-nam’s assassination?
Sometimes, but I also really appreciated the help of the sources who felt it was dangerous to talk to me. And I think they were taking real risks and being extremely brave to help put out a very important story about what actually happened in this assassination.