VX nerve agent killed brother of North Korean leader
Sometime in the hours after poisoning the half brother of North Korea’s leader, one of his two attackers began to vomit, Malaysian police said Friday. It was apparently an early indication of the immensely powerful toxin that was used in the killing: the chemical warfare agent VX.
The oily poison was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory, experts say, and is banned under international treaties. North Korea, a prime suspect in the case, never signed that treaty, and has spent decades developing a complex chemical weapons program that has long worried the international community.
“This is not something you make in a kitchen lab. You’d kill yourself if you did,” said Bruce Bennet, a defence expert with the RAND Corporation who has studied North Korea.
The public poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, which took place amid crowds of travellers in the budget terminal at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, has boosted speculation that North Korea dispatched killers to assassinate its leader’s older brother, who, though not an obvious political threat, may have been seen as a potential rival in the country’s dynastic dictatorship.
While Malaysia hasn’t directly accused the North Korean government of being behind the attack, officials said earlier this week that four North Korean men provided the women with poison. The four fled Malaysia shortly after the killing, police say.
South Korean intelligence officials have accused North Korea of being behind the attack, saying Kim Jong Nam had been on a government hit list for years. North Korea denies any role in the murder and says Malaysia’s investigation is biased and full of holes. But since taking power in late 2011, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un has executed or purged a number of high-level government officials, including his uncle.
VX is an extremely powerful poison, with an amount no larger than a few grains of salt enough to kill. An odourless chemical, it can be inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Then, in anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours, it can cause a range of symptoms, from blurred vision to a headache. Enough exposure leads to convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure and death.
It has the consistency of motor oil and can take days or even weeks to evaporate. It could have contaminated anywhere Kim was afterward, including medical facilities and the ambulance he was transported in, experts say.
“It’s a very toxic nerve agent. Very, very toxic,” said Dr. Bruce Goldberger, a leading toxicologist who heads the forensic medicine division at the University of Florida. He said an antidote can be administered by injection. U.S. medics and military personnel carried kits with the antidote on the battlefield during the Iraq war in case they were exposed to the chemical weapon.
“I’m intrigued that these two alleged assassins suffered no ill effect from exposure to VX,” he said. “It is possible that both of these women were given the antidote.”
With authorities acknowledging they had not decontaminated the airport after the killing, the case also has raised questions about public safety — although there has been no sign that anyone except the alleged attacker has fallen ill.
North Korean Embassy counselor Kim Yu Song reads out a press release to reporters at the gate of the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday.