It took 20 minutes for the banned nerve gas to do its deadly work.

In that time, Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, grew increasingly desperate for help. He struggled to breathe. Then his eyes rolled back before he lost consciousness.

As he tried to check in for a flight at Kuala Lumpur airport, he'd been approached from behind by two women, one who wiped something across his eyes.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, left, and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, right, are escorted by police as they leave their court hearing. Photo / AP
Indonesian Siti Aisyah, left, and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, right, are escorted by police as they leave their court hearing. Photo / AP

Sweat streamed from his face as he approached an airport information counter to report the assault. Juliana Idris was the first person he spoke to at the counter.

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"His hands were shaking a bit," but she didn't know why, she told the first day of the court trial into his death on Monday.

He told her he'd been "attacked from behind by two women," with one of them wiping something over his eyes.

Idris was one of a number of witnesses to recount the Kim Jong-nam's final moments as the trial began in Malaysia of two women accused of brazenly assassinating him on February 13 by smearing an exotic poison on his face.

Site Aisyah of Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam are charged with murder using banned VX nerve agent.

The two, who pleaded innocent at Malaysia's High Court, have said they thought they were playing a harmless prank for a hidden-camera TV show.

They say they were hoodwinked by men suspected of being North Korean agents.

Kim Jong-un is believed to have considered his older sibling a potential rival for power.

The court heard by the time Idris got Kim Jong-nam got to a police officer, his eyes were red, and the police officer could see liquid on his face. He couldn't tell if it was sweat, or something else.

The moment Kim Jong-nam is attacked.
The moment Kim Jong-nam is attacked.
Kim Jong-nam, exiled half brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-unn, in Narita, Japan. Photo / AP
Kim Jong-nam, exiled half brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-unn, in Narita, Japan. Photo / AP

BROTHERS NEVER MET

The accused women say they thought they were playing a harmless prank for a hidden-camera TV show. On Monday, they shook their heads "no" when asked if they were guilty.

They are the only suspects in custody in a killing which South Korea's spy agency claims was part of a five-year plot by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to kill a brother he reportedly never met.

Police say four North Koreans suspected of involvement left the country on the day of the attack.

Three others who holed up inside North Korea's embassy were allowed to leave in a deal with Pyongyang to ease tensions, despite Malaysia's anger at the public use of a chemical weapon on its territory.

Lawyers for the two women, who face the death penalty if convicted, asked the court to compel prosecutors to identify four people still at large mentioned in the charge sheet as having a common intention to kill Kim. The judge denied the request.

The prosecution phase of the trial is expected to last about two months, after which the judge will decide if there is a strong case for the women to have to mount their defence.

Kim Jong-nam speaks to airport officials after the incident.
Kim Jong-nam speaks to airport officials after the incident.

OUT OF FAVOUR

Kim, who was 45 or 46, was the eldest son of the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding.

But he reportedly fell out of favour in 2001 after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

He had been living abroad for years and at the time of his death was travelling on a North Korean diplomatic passport under the name "Kim Chol."

North Korea has a long history of ordering killings of people it views as threats to its regimen, though Kim was not thought to be seeking influence over his younger brother.

But he had spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic control of the North Korea.

North Korea has denied any role in the killing and has not even acknowledged the dead man was Kim Jong Kim. It has suggested the victim died of a heart attack and accused Malaysia of working with South Korean and other "hostile forces" in blaming Pyongyang.

Naran Singh, centre, and Hisyam Teh Toh Teik, left, lawyers for Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, speak to journalists at Shah Alam court house at Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur,. Photo / AP
Naran Singh, centre, and Hisyam Teh Toh Teik, left, lawyers for Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, speak to journalists at Shah Alam court house at Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur,. Photo / AP

"ELABORATE TRICK"

Aisyah's lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, said before the trial began that her defence will be that she didn't know she had poison on her hand when she smeared Kim's face and was instead the unwitting victim of an elaborate trick.

The 25-year-old was at a pub in Kuala Lumpur in early January when she was recruited by a North Korean man to star in what he said were video prank shows, Gooi said.

It's claimed over several days, the North Korean, who went by the name James, had Aisyah go out to malls, hotels and airports and rub oil or pepper sauce on strangers, which he would film on his phone.

She was paid up to $200 for each "prank".

In late January, James introduced her to a man called Chang, who said he was the producer of video prank shows for the Chinese market, the lawyer said. He asked Aisyah to do several more pranks at the Kuala Lumpur airport a few days before Kim was attacked.

On the day of Kim's death, Chang pointed him out to Aisyah as the next target and put the poison on her hand, the lawyer said.

Police say Chang was actually Hong Kong Hac, one of the four North Korean suspects who left Malaysia on the day of the killing, while James was Ri Ji U, one of the three other North Koreans who hid inside their country's embassy in Kuala Lumpur to avoid questioning.

Those three were later allowed to fly home in exchange for nine Malaysians allowed to leave Pyongyang.

The 29-year-old Vietnamese suspect, Huong, was caught on airport security surveillance cameras wearing a white sweatshirt emblazoned with the big black letters "LOL" - the acronym for "laughing out loud." Little is known about her. Raised in a rice farm in northern Vietnam, her family said they had hardly heard from her since she left home a decade ago.