Malaysia: VX nerve agent killed brother of N. Korean leader

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - EILEEN NG

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.

“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 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. 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 f ail­ure 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.

News that a deadly nerve agent killed Kim Jong Nam was an as­ton­ish­ing break in a case of mur­der and geopo­lit­i­cal in­trigue.

Kim, who was in his mid-40s and had lived abroad for years, was es­tranged from his younger brother, Kim Jong Un.

Malaysian na­tional po­lice chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the women had been trained to go straight to wash­rooms and clean their hands af­ter­ward.

But he said one of the women — he de­clined to say which one — be­gan vom­it­ing af­ter the at­tack.

VX was de­tected on Kim’s eyes and face, Khalid said in a state­ment.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader, was poi­soned at Kuala Lumpur air­port.

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