The poisoner’s handbook: What Israel and North Korea have in common

The front page of the New Straits Times showing an image purportedly of Kim Jong-nam moments after the attack. Photo: Supplied/New Straits Times Ri Jong-chol, the North Korean man in Malaysian police custody over the killing of Kim Jong-nam. Photo: thestar苏州美甲美睫培训

In this image from security camera footage, Kim Jong-nam gestures towards his face while talking to airport security at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, shortly before his death. Photo: Fuji TV/AP

Khalid Mishal and his security detail walk the streets of Doha, Qatar, in February 2013. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Washington: Avoiding unfriendly airspace, Benjamin Netanyahu took a circuitous flight path to Australia this week.

Still, the Israeli prime minister’s Singapore stopover was probably closer than he would have preferred to the scene of a crime that draws attention to Netanyahu’s membership of an oddball global fraternity.

Its members are the messy assassins – either they botch the kill or they can’t make a clean getaway. The fraternity recently admitted as a high-profile member the erratic North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

Try as they might, these two have been unable to master the craft like, say, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose opponents are poisoned or gunned down with regularity – but invariably the perpetrators evade capture, leaving a cloud of suspicion but, in most cases, no smoking gun.

As Netanyahu flew by early this week, authorities in Malaysia were trying to unravel the February 13 death by poisoning at Kuala Lumpur International Airport of a slightly pathetic figure – 46-year-old Kim Jong-nam, who might have inherited the Pyongyang dictatorship had he not been elbowed aside in the Kim family’s power struggles and eventually supplanted by his younger half-brother, Kim Jong-un.

A team of four North Korean agents reportedly watched the attack on the exiled Kim from the Kuala Lumpur airport concourse, before boarding flights out of the country on their own circuitous return to Pyongyang. A fifth North Korean, a senior diplomat at the country’s Kuala Lumpur embassy, was with the four on the concourse and is now a wanted man.

The men reportedly recruited two women, an Indonesian and a Vietnamese, who police say they trained in executing the attack on Kim with several dry runs in local shopping malls.

Authorities quickly detained the women. But despite some police statements and the leaking of dramatic snatches of CCTV footage from the airport security system, the emerging narrative is incomplete – for now.

The two women are said to have doused their hands in a poison, possibly one of them with a part-A potion and the other with a part-B additive, a concoction that became lethal only when the two mixed them on Kim’s face. Yet the leaked footage shows only one of the two women accosting Kim – from behind.

Other reports suggest a poison was sprayed in Kim’s face and according to China Press, a Chinese-language newspaper in Malaysia, his last words were: “Very painful, very painful. I was sprayed liquid.”

Kim’s reported use of the word “spray” recalled Netanyahu’s humiliation in 1997 when, during his first stint as Israel’s prime minister, he approved a plan by the intelligence agency Mossad to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Mishal –  which was then spectacularly botched.

Just as Pyongyang chose the territory of Malaysia to unleash its attack on Kim, so Mossad chose to go after Mishal in the streets of Jordan’s dusty little capital, Amman.

In both cases the government setting out to kill was prepared to burn a friend – in the case of the Mishal attack, one of only two Arab states that had diplomatic relations with Israel.

Netanyahu was determined to avenge a recent series of bloody Hamas suicide attacks in Israel. But the Mossad team’s blunders left Jordan’s King Hussein holding all the aces.

Mishal’s life hung in the balance for days. But his bodyguard had captured two of the Mossad attackers, who were thrown into prison – and King Hussein announced theatrically that he’d happily hang them. When it emerged that four of their accomplices were holed up in the Israeli embassy, the king threw a military cordon around the mission.

Hussein then got on the phone to Washington, demanding the unquestioning support of the Clinton White House – Netanyahu had to be ordered to hand over the formula for the poison and an antidote. If Israel refused to comply, the king would tear up the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, signed in 1994 in the first optimistic days of the Oslo peace process.

The audacity of Netanyahu’s venture meant that Hussein was able to demand and win the release from an Israeli prison of Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and dozens of other long-term Palestinian prisoners.

In the assassination business, poison usually is preferred over a bullet, because the cause of death might go undetected and if it is administered correctly, death might not occur for some time after what ideally would have been a surreptitious attack.

That was certainly Israel’s plan for Mishal. And it seems likely that the North Koreans would have intended Kim to have died on the flight he was due to board, rather than making a spectacle of themselves and of his death in a foreign country.

Mishal survived the attack – in which a poison was sprayed in his ear. His doctors concluded that the Mossad team had sprayed a little less of the drug than was required for him to die over a period of hours, quietly and seemingly of natural causes.

Did Kim’s attackers apply too much of their chemical weapon? Malaysian doctors have concluded an autopsy, and a statement from the inspector-general of police on Friday said a preliminary analysis of substances taken from Kim’s face identified a “VX nerve agent”.

In Mishal’s case the drug was levofentanyl, an incredibly powerful derivative of the widely used surgical painkiller fentanyl, which, experts believe, had been shelved by its Belgian producers because it had no medical application – but which was then acquired by Mossad.

If Mishal had quickly ingested a large quantity of levofentanyl, he would likely have died very quickly. His doctors were puzzled – they could find no research on the efficacy of administering the precursor drug fentanyl through the ear, in which the tougher tissue of the eardrum effectively acts as a shield.

But looking through a killer’s prism, and not a doctor’s, the thinking became clear – the Israelis had wanted Mishal to die in his own time, so they needed the drug to be absorbed slowly. Ideally, his attacker was to have brushed past him, spraying the drug into the Hamas leader’s ear as an accomplice distracted Mishal by popping a pre-shaken can of fizzy drink.

Had they not botched that street encounter, Mishal’s family and colleagues probably would not have connected his bodily system shutting down to bumping into someone in the street – the  expectation was that his only symptom would be a need for sleep, from which he would not awake.

But that deliberately delayed action became the plan’s fatal flaw – the hours in which the Israelis had expected Mishal to die became the hours in which Jordanian doctors might save him.

Both governments, Israel in 1997 and North Korea nearly 20 years later, resorted to censorship in efforts to keep their people in the dark on the detail of their acts and the uproar they provoked. And in both cases they would have been relying on whispers, not megaphones, to convey the message to their target audience – the Hamas leadership in the case of Israel;  the wider Kim family and activist dissidents in the case of North Korea.

Netanyahu wore his shame quietly. He really had no choice – the Clinton administration was remarkably friendly to Israel, yet at the time of the attack on Mishal, not a single senior Clinton official was prepared to defend the Israeli prime minister.

Pyongyang, however, is kicking like a mule.

On Thursday, it accused Beijing of hypocrisy for suspending coal imports from North Korea, in punishment as much for the Kim killing as for its recent ballistic missile test, analysts say. Kim Jong-nam was reportedly being warehoused by Beijing – if for no other reason than as a bloodline successor to the North Korean leadership, he was a useful pawn at China’s end of the regional chessboard.

But Pyongyang has saved its most vitriolic language for the Malaysian government, blaming it for Kim’s death, demanding that the body be handed over and that the “innocent” women be freed.

No government likes to see its territory used a killing field. So Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak likely took great satisfaction in informing Pyongyang that a requirement of Malaysian law must be met before Kuala Lumpur could hand over Kim’s body – a DNA sample was required from the victim’s next of kin.

Kim Jong-un is not expected to provide a blood sample any time soon.

Paul McGeough is the author of Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit … and the rise of Hamas

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