The National Today

Kim Jong-Nam murder trial prosecutors play down North Korea connections

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

Malaysian police escort Doan Thi Huong, centre, out of the Malaysia Chemistry Department in Petaling Jaya in October 2017. Doan from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia are charged with the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, which involved a nerve agent. (Fazry Ismail/EPA-EFE)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • A Malaysian judge will soon decide the fate of two women accused of killing the half-brother of Kim Jong-un — with little regard to North Korea's alleged involvement
  • 13-year-old Canadian water activist Autumn Peltier will address the UN General Assembly tomorrow, something "bigger than basically everything I've ever done"
  • Suspected mastermind behind Texas bombings was no genius
  • The polygraph is an American invention, but surely its creators never imagined it would someday unite the U.S. president and a porn actress — here are some things to keep in mind about lie detectors

Why North Korea may be getting away with murder

A Malaysian judge will soon decide the fate of two women accused of killing the half-brother of Kim Jong-un at the Kuala Lumpur airport last year — with little regard to North Korea's alleged involvement.

Doan Thi Huong, a 29-year-old Vietnamese tourist and Siti Aisyah, 26, an Indonesian citizen, are charged with having smeared VX, a deadly nerve agent, over the face of Kim Jong-Nam as he walked through an airport concourse on Feb. 13, 2017.

If convicted, they face the death penalty.

This combo shows a photo taken on May 4, 2001, of a man believed to be Kim Jong-Nam, and on the right his half-brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (Toshifumi Kitamura, Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Their lawyers have raised the issue of four other suspects — all believed to be North Korean — who fled the country in the wake of the attack. There are also three other men who may have been involved, and who are apparently still holed up in North Korea's embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

But while prosecutors introduced surveillance video of two of those suspects meeting the accused women, they made no mention of their nationality.

And the court doesn't appear to be too interested in delving into the question of who might be motivated — or able — to stage such an elaborate assassination.

In late January, the defence suggested that Kim's purpose for being in Malaysia was to meet up with an American spy.

There are also questions surrounding his relationship with Kim Jong-un.

Kim, the eldest son of late Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, had apparently never met his younger half-sibling. The one-time heir to the family dynasty had fallen out of favour and left the country for good in 2001, after an embarrassing incident in Japan involving a fake Dominican passport and a trip to Tokyo Disneyland.

But he had been critical of the regime, and it has been reported that Kim Jong-un had issued a "standing order" to have him killed.

The Malaysian government, however, has been extremely cautious about directly linking Kim's murder to his birthplace and family. Prime Minister Najib Razak made the connection once, last March, when three Malaysian diplomats were briefly prevented from leaving Pyongyang, but then quickly back-tracked.

Malaysia has had friendly relations with North Korea for the past 15 years. Both countries opened embassies in 2003, and starting in 2009 there was visa-free travel between the two nations.

Before the UN sanctions, Malaysia exported oil, rubber and palm oil to the "hermit kingdom," and imported North Korean iron, steel and coal, along with a few hundred temporary workers. Although all ties are now "under review," the special relationship persists.

Some speculate that's why the prosecution is steering clear of the political dimensions of the case, and is concentrating instead on proving that Huong and Aisyah knew exactly what they were doing.

The trial, which began Oct. 2, has so far heard from more than 30 witnesses.

Doan Thi Huong, right, says she was an unwitting pawn who thought she was participating in a hidden-camera prank being pulled on Kim Jong-Nam. (Lai Seng Sin/REUTERS)
Security videos, entered into evidence, show the two women heading off to the washroom to wash their hands after smearing Kim's face. Experts testified that VX can be safely scrubbed off with soap and water within 15 minutes of application.

The two women, meanwhile, say that they were unwitting pawns who thought they were participating in a hidden-camera prank.

This week, the defence introduced YouTube videos of Huong, who describes herself as an actress, engaging in hijinks on the streets of Hanoi. One, in which she was the victim — albeit receiving a lengthy kiss rather than a paralyzing toxin — drew laughter from the judge.

Today, Doan testified that there had been rehearsals for the Kuala Lumpur airport "prank."

"After smearing the liquid on the actor's face, I rushed to the toilet to wash my hands because they were sticky and smelly. In previous pranks, I only used lotions," said a statement read into the record.

Malaysia has a mandatory death sentence for murder, but it can be commuted to life in prison if the killing is found to have been unintentional.

Rosemary Barton On Assignment

When Autumn Pelletier was born, her mother Stephanie says she just knew there was something different about her. "She was so serious — like, she came out, she just had this look on her. And it was piercing when I looked at her, and I said, 'Wow.'"

Thirteen years later, Autumn is still surprising her mother and those around her. On Thursday, she will be one of the speakers at the United Nations on World Water Day.

Autumn Peltier, 13, is one of Canada’s youngest water activists. The resident of Manitoulin Island rose to prominence after confronting Justin Trudeau in an unscripted meeting and getting him to promise he would take steps to protect Canada’s water. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
A regular teenager in many ways, Autumn has become a well-known advocate for safe drinking water for Indigenous communities and clean waterways.

She has spoken in Sweden, been nominated for a Children's International Peace Prize and had a tearful encounter with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over protecting water. The resident of Georgian Bay's Manitoulin Island is in demand to speak across Canada and around the world; her calendar is booked until well into next year.

She says she does it in hopes she can make a difference.

"To me, advocating for water is more of a passion and advocating for it is helping the water in some way. Maybe convincing politicians or leaders to maybe change their minds about pipelines," Autumn says.

"It's kind of hard to change the mind of someone that's so high up there," she adds. "We do need pipelines for certain things, for daily human lives. But they do have bad causes and different effects."

Autumn has been inspired by her mother's commitment to raising her children with a deep sense of identity and culture, and also by her great-aunt Josephine Mandamin, a water walker, who trekked the five shores of the Great Lakes to bring attention to the need to protect water.

Peltier, from Wikwemikong First Nation, says one of her inspirations is her great-aunt Josephine Mandamin, who travelled the shores of all five Great Lakes to earn the nickname Water Walker. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
But Autumn's desire to make a difference has come at some cost to herself. When she returned from her first overseas speech, she began to get bullied by other kids at school. She left school for a period of time, went to counselling and thought seriously about quitting.

She has since pulled back a bit so that she can have the time she needs for school and her friends — and for being a teenager — but she knew that she had to accept the invitation to speak at the UN.

"It's bigger than basically everything I've ever done," she says.

And while it is sometimes difficult for Autumn and her family, who do this largely at their own expense, she does think it's worth it.

"I'm going to keep on doing this work for the rest of my life. I hope that I can make a change."

Canadian water activist Autumn Peltier, 13, is getting ready to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on World Water Day. And she is nervous, as one would expect, at the prospect of a speech that's 'bigger than basically everything I've ever done.' 0:42
  • WATCH: Rosemary's Barton's feature about Autumn Peltier tonight on The National on CBC television or streamed online.

A serial bomber's bloody end

Mark Conditt, the suspected mastermind behind the Texas bombings, was no genius.

After a package bomb exploded at a FedEx sorting facility in Texas early yesterday, authorities quickly traced who had sent it, obtaining surveillance footage from a drop-off counter. Within hours, they had followed their man's cellphone signals to a motel just outside Austin.

When Conditt left his room in the wee hours this morning, police followed.

Minutes later, he pulled his vehicle off a road and into a ditch and blew himself up as SWAT team members approached. One officer was injured, and the 24-year alleged serial bomber was killed.

Members of a law enforcement team work near the area in Round Rock, Texas, where a suspect in a series of bombing attacks in Austin blew himself up as authorities closed in early Wednesday morning. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)
The bombing spree that began March 2 killed two people — Anthony House, 39, and 17-year-old Draylen Mason. Three more were wounded, including a 75-year-old woman.

To date, police have traced six explosive devices — including another FedEx package that was intercepted before it detonated.

And there may be more bombs still out there. After examining Conditt's Google history, police warned residents at two Austin addresses to be on the lookout for parcels.

U.S. media outlets are busy trying to piece together the details of Conditt's life — and his possible motivations.

He lived in Pflugerville, about 30 kilometres outside Austin, with his parents and two siblings. He had been home-schooled and then studied at a community college, working for a time as a computer repair technician and then at a semiconductor manufacturer. A blog entry, posted in 2012 when he was 17, reveals his views against abortion and gay marriage, and his support for the death penalty.

Investigators search for evidence near Round Rock after Mark Anthony Conditt, the 24-year-old suspect in the Austin bombings, blew himself up inside his vehicle. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
What isn't yet clear is how he will be categorized.

Earlier this week, the NAACP and members of the Congressional Black Caucus called on authorities and the media to label the bombings "domestic terrorism," citing a possible racial motivation, given that both dead men were black and the wounded 75-year-old is Hispanic.

But the victims of a roadside booby-trap that exploded Monday night were white.

America's Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump, simply hailed the "great job" by law enforcement this morning.

"AUSTIN BOMBING SUSPECT IS DEAD," was his all-caps message.

Four questions about lie detectors

The polygraph is an American invention, but surely its creators never imagined it would someday unite the U.S. president and a porn actress.

Ken Alder is a professor of history at Northwestern University and the award-winning author of several books, including The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession. He answered some questions from The National Today via email:

Q: The lie detector is used all over the world, but you maintain that it's a uniquely American device. Why?

A: No other country uses the polygraph to anything like the extent that America does.

The irony is that the lie detector was created in early 20th century America to be a scientific and humane substitute for more violent "third degree" methods of police interrogation. This was part of a larger effort to make the police into professionals in a country where they had previously been hired at the local, municipal level as part of patronage politics.

The lie detector was meant to make cops themselves law-abiding. By contrast, in most other developed countries, the police received professional training and vetting.

The reliability of lie detectors is a matter of debate. U.S. courts have generally ruled that polygraph evidence is not admissible in criminal trials. (Getty Images)

Q: There's plenty of evidence that polygraphs are unreliable. So why do authorities, the media and the public continue to trust them?

A: To be clear, not all authorities consider the polygraph trustworthy. The U.S. courts have generally ruled that polygraph evidence is not admissible in criminal trials.

But the courts' rejection actually offers a clue to the polygraph's appeal. Judges worried that lay-juries would place too much credence in polygraph results, because they came clothed in the aura of "objective science" and hence were dispassionate and fair.

It is telling that in many realms beside law enforcement, the U.S. has also turned to analogous psychological sciences to try to resolve contentious social issues, such as the IQ and SAT tests to decide admission to university, and Taylorist time-and-motion studies to resolve conflict between workers and management. This aura of machine-like "objectivity" is what has made these techniques — including the lie detector — seem like fair arbiters, and hence trustworthy.

The paradox, of course, is that in practice the human operator of the polygraph has huge discretion over how the test is administered and assessed. That is why their results are especially unreliable when the subject gets to pick the examiner, as is the case in many publicity stunts to prove credibility.

Q: On balance, do you think they've done more harm or good?

A:On balance, they have done more harm.

Polygraphs are especially harmful when done in the context of vast sweeps of a population to find a few deceivers, as in the U.S. nuclear program from its early days in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (where the entire town was systematically polygraphed), and in many U.S. commercial workplaces until their use was curtailed in the 1980s. In these situations, the number of false-positives impugn many innocent people, while false-negatives leave the handful of guilty people undetected.  

Polygraphs are also harmful when used as a condition for parole for sex offenders, as is frequently done. That is because topics as emotional as sex are notoriously hard to assess on a physiological instrument that, for all intents and purposes, measures stress.

They don't do much harm on daytime television.

Q: What do you think would happen if Donald Trump was hooked up to a polygraph?

A: In the immortal words of George Costanza [Seinfeld, S6E15], "Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie … if you believe it."

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Quote of the moment

"I think it is an emetic prospect frankly to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event."

- U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, weighing in on the coming World Cup of Soccer in Russia and comparisons being made to Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Boris Johnson, Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Optimism returns to NAFTA talks as U.S. makes key concession (CBC)
  • Hackers led warplanes to Syrian hospital, claims doctor (Brisbane Times)
  • Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls freed (BBC)
  • Halifax senior in hospital for 39 days was charged for three years of beside phone (CBC)
  • Dysfunctional megacity: Why Dhaka is bursting at the sewers (Guardian)
  • Google just mapped Toronto's history in photos (BlogTO)
  • Minke whale captured in rare underwater footage (CBC)
  • German city installs Karl Marx traffic lights (BBC)

Today in history

March 21, 1996: The National goes online

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it was still necessary to define terms like "the web" and "homepage" to viewers. (And to read out all the punctuation marks in a URL.) The National's first website — designed to take "full advantage" of Netscape Navigator Version 2 — was "very easy to use," Laurie Brown assured a fretful nation. And someday, she promised, you'd be able to "access stories just as they are broadcast, with full sound and pictures." The future is now.

As more Canadians begin using the internet in 1996, the CBC's flagship news program unveils its new website. 5:03

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.