Malaysian police have announced that Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un, was assassinated with VX nerve agent, classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
The UK Guardian reports this finding was based on “preliminary analysis of swabs taken from the face and eyes” of the slain man. More items recovered from the scene of the attack at Kuala Lumpur Airport are still being analyzed for traces of the agent and the departure lounge where the attack occurred is supposed to be decontaminated, although an employee of the airport’s management company said the terminal had not been sealed off or decontaminated yet.
Security camera footage of the February 13 attack shows Kim’s female assailants grabbing his face. According to Malaysian police, they rubbed a liquid toxin on him, then quickly washed their hands. Kim suffered a seizure and died on his way to the hospital.
“We are shocked by the latest revelation by the Malaysian authorities that VX… was used in the death of Kim Jong-Nam. The use of any chemical weapons is strictly banned for any reason and in any place,” said the South Korean foreign ministry, as quoted by the Guardian.
China’s foreign ministry indicated it was aware of the report from Malaysian police but considered it “preliminary information” and insisted “there has been no conclusion with regards to this incident.”
NBC News explains that VX, which is “colorless, odorless, and tasteless” in liquid form, is “deadly in microscopic amounts.” In fact, a NATO weapons expert described it as “the most toxic chemical weapon ever produced.” It was originally devised as a pesticide but was considered too dangerous for commercial use. Until now, the two most notorious examples of VX deployment were by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians and Kurds in the 80s and the Aum Shinrikyo death cult in Japan in the 90s.
Based on expert testimony, NBC describes Kim Jong-nam’s last moments:
It’s likely that Kim experienced pinpointed pupils, a runny nose, and nausea, before finding it hard to breathe and feeling his heart racing.
He probably then had loss of bladder and bowel control, convulsions, seizures, and finally death while on the way to the hospital just minutes later.
There are antidotes, such as the medication Atropine, which the French military were issued with after the Paris attacks because they feared ISIS would attempt to use VX. But this needs to be administered almost immediately to be effective.
“VX acts so quickly that victims would have to be injected with the antidote almost immediately to have a chance at survival,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. Army’s chemical warfare guidelines prescribe immediately decontaminating the skin with bleach and water after contact with VX liquid, which seems consistent with the precautions taken by Kim Jong-nam’s attackers. The New York Times notes that Kim Jong-nam might have been able to survive the attack by immediately washing his face.
Another interesting note from the Times is that VX is available in a version that is not dangerous until two separate compounds are mixed together, which would support theories that the two female assassins each coated their hands with a substance that wasn’t dangerous to them individually. The binary version of VX is said to act more slowly than its pure single-compound form, which would explain why it took about 15 minutes for Kim to die.
Fortunately, VX does not evaporate into a gaseous form on its own at room temperature, so there was no collateral damage from the assassination. The Malaysian police said one of the female assassins began vomiting after the attack, which could indicate accidental but nonlethal exposure.
North Korea is believed to have extensive stockpiles of VX and other chemical weapons. Experts say it would not have been difficult for North Korean agents to smuggle a tiny amount of VX liquid into Malaysia, although they were technically committing an act of war by doing so. Actually producing VX is extremely difficult, so if it is confirmed as the murder weapon, it will further implicate Pyongyang as a likely suspect.
“If they were behind this then it means a nation state has taken a weapon of mass destruction into another country and used it. It will be very interesting to see what the international reaction will be,” former NATO commanding officer Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told NBC News.
Rohan Gunaratna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore suggested to the New York Times that North Korea might have been sending a message to the international community with its exotic choice of murder weapon: “By using VX in an international airport in the heart of Asia, North Korea has sent a very clear message to the world that it will strike its enemies anywhere in the world. It also demonstrates the North Korean response in the event of an attack against North Korea.”
A similar hypothesis was advanced by associated professor Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “They wanted everyone, especially the U.S., to know it was VX and that they can make it or have it. Doing it publicly but not killing anyone else is a pretty good way to reveal that capability and deterrent.”