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How the Hit Team Came Together to Kill Kim Jong Nam

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 23/2/2017 Ben Otto, Yantoultra Ngui

© fuji tv/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—The hit squad assembled here quickly from three countries and practiced at least twice at posh shopping malls before executing their brazen assault at the airport.

Such emerging details are feeding suspicions here and in South Korea that the killing last week of Kim Jong Nam, half brother of North Korea’s mercurial dictator, was a well-orchestrated plot directed from Pyongyang.

An official at the North Korean Embassy here and an employee of the country’s state-owned airline were identified by police on Wednesday as among the seven suspects still at large.

And the intrigue continues: Police also said that someone tried to break into the morgue where Mr. Kim’s body is being kept, leading them to tighten security there.

Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar rejected claims by two women, now in police custody, who said they thought they were playing a prank for a hidden-camera TV show in attacking Mr. Kim on February 13.

The suspects “knew what they were doing” when they smeared a toxic substance on his face, he said, and had rehearsed the operation with some of the North Korean suspects, still at large, at two upscale malls, including one at the Kuala Lumpur City Center, site of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.

One of the women, 28-year-old Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam, was lodging near the airport with a giant teddy bear that she had carried from hotel to hotel, witnesses said.

The other, Siti Aisyah of Indonesia, had just celebrated her 25th birthday with friends at the Hard Rock Cafe here, one friend told The Wall Street Journal. The night before the killing, she hadn’t been feeling well, she told her mother in Indonesia by phone.

On the day of Mr. Kim’s death, the group reassembled at the airport terminal. Four North Korean male suspects sat with Ms. Huong in a cafe, chatting in a mix of Malay and English, an airport worker told the Journal. Several associates moved around nearby, including Ms. Aisyah, who sat with a young Malaysian caterer who police said was her boyfriend, this person said.

Just before 9 a.m., Mr. Kim arrived to catch a 10:50 a.m. AirAsia flight to Macau. Ms. Huong and Ms. Aisyah applied a toxic cream or liquid to their bare hands, police said, and moved into position.

The next sequence has been viewed millions of times in a surveillance video posted on YouTube and news sites around the world: Mr. Kim paused to look up at a giant departures board before walking past the restaurant to a self-check-in kiosk. There, the two women approached him from different sides and in swift movements at least one appears to apply something to his face.

The footage seemed to show Mr. Kim rocking back on his heels, stunned or confused, as the women slipped quickly away in opposite directions. He started toward a bathroom before doubling back and going to the departure hall’s main information counter. Police said that he told an airport employee what had happened and that he was feeling dizzy.

The women washed their hands, police said on Wednesday, and then left the airport, at least one of them by taxi. Four of the North Koreans passed through immigration, three of them flying to Jakarta, Indonesia, and later that night to Dubai, Malaysian and Indonesian officials said.

The North Korean who had provided Ms. Huong with the toxic substance left the airport by taxi, one official told the Journal.

Mr. Kim was escorted downstairs to the airport’s medical clinic, where he had a seizure. He was carried by stretcher to an ambulance and died en route to the hospital.

Malaysian police say they suspect Mr. Kim​ was poisoned but are still​ awaiting the results of a toxicology report and an autopsy.

South Korea’s spy chief has described Mr. Kim’s​ death as the fulfillment of his half-brother Kim Jong Un’s assassination order.

Malaysian authorities are trying to​ determine​ why Mr. Kim visited the country on February 6, arriving on a North Korean passport with the fake name Kim Chol. It was a trip Mr. Kim had made several times before, often staying near the North Korean Embassy, until 2013, when the ambassador, a friend, was recalled to North Korea and executed.

Investigators have struggled to assess the scale of the alleged plot. ​ “We looked​ through everything, the trash, too,” one officer said. Complicating the matter, the security camera closest to the assault wasn’t working at the time of the assault and the others captured events unclearly.

Police caught a break​ two days after the killing when​ Ms. Huong returned to the airport, planning to fly to Vietnam, ​and security personnel recognized her from security footage.

Later in the day, police tracked down the Malaysian man, 26-year-old caterer Muhammad Farid Jalabuddin, who they said was Ms. Aisyah’s boyfriend. A few hours later, at 2 a.m., they arrested Ms. Aisyah at a hotel far from the airport, setting in motion a chain of arrests that ultimately led to the arrest of a North Korean man, Ri Jong Chol, at a Kuala Lumpur condominium. Officials said they planned to release Mr. Jalabuddin.

Investigators have since​ tried to piece together how the various players interacted, especially the role of the North Korean​ men who sat at the departure hall restaurant, a Malaysian-themed outlet called Bibik Heritage, and the others nearby.

Ms. Huong, from a coastal province near Hanoi, once studied pharmacology in Hanoi, her father told local media in Vietnam. Police told the Journal they believed she had traveled to North Korea with one of the men at the airport. She flew from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur just before Mr. Kim arrived, then checked into a $20-a-night transit hotel near the airport two days before the assault.

“She had this huge stuffed teddy with her,” one of the employees there recalled.

Over the next few days, Ms. Huong would stay in three different hotels, the teddy bear in tow, and cut her shoulder-length hair into a bob. Ms. Huong could speak Malaysian, police said, but appears to have spoken English at the hotels.

Ms. Aisyah, a quiet divorcee whom police called a spa masseuse, had recently arrived in Malaysia by boat from Indonesia, just weeks after flying to Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

She seemed to work regularly and have a full social life in Kuala Lumpur. ​Her family thought she worked in a clothing store on an Indonesian island near Singapore and occasionally traveled to Malaysia to shoot hidden-camera style prank videos they had never seen.

The women told police they believed they had been taking part in such a video prank involving Mr. Kim, a claim police rejected Wednesday.

One of the North Korean suspects, Mr. Ri, lived in Malaysia since late 2013, having dabbled in palm oil and other exports, a man who helped arrange his visa said.

“He’s a very humble man, not aggressive,” the man said. “Didn’t talk much. Didn’t talk about other subjects. Only mushroom and palm oil.”

But Mr. Ri had never worked for the company listed on his work permit, and other reports suggested he was a trained chemist. Police described Mr. Ri, 46, as a driver for the other North Koreans.

Police say another North Korean man appears to have given Ms. Huong a poisonous substance to use on Mr. Kim.

​One of the eight North Korean suspects was identified Wednesday as second secretary at the North Korean embassy, who last entered the country in September, police said. Officials said another was employed by Air Koryo, an airline that no longer has an office in Malaysia.

On Wednesday, police urged the North Korean Embassy to hand over the suspects from the embassy and the airline to help the investigation. Air Koryo couldn’t be reached for comment.

“We submitted the request today,” Mr. Khalid said. “If they refuse to cooperate, then we will issue warrants of arrest on both of them.”

​A staff member at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur said Thursday that the embassy had not received any such request.

Write to Ben Otto at ben.otto@wsj.com and Yantoultra Ngui at yantoultra.ngui@wsj.com

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