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VX Nerve Agent: What Is it, and Did North Korea Use it to Kill Kim Jong-Nam?

Updated on March 4, 2017
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Harry is a British Threat and Security Analyst. He has a degree in Criminology and Security Studies.

On 13th February 2017, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia. It has now been revealed that a weapon of mass destruction was used to do so. This article will seperate the truth from the sensationalism surrounding the killing; explaining in detail, why and how Kim Jong-nam was killed, and what VX nerve agent is.

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un | Source
Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il | Source

Who Exactly was Kim Jong-Nam?

Kim Jong-Nam was the estranged half-brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Un. Kim Jong-Nam dropped out of the Kim dynasty's third generation struggle for power in the 1970s. He was side-lined as a teenager by his father Kim Jong-Il during a family feud. It has been reported that in the 1990s he was appointed to a senior position in the Ministry of Public Security of the DPRK, as a future leader, but this appears to be speculative. It has also been reported that he had absolutely no intention of succeeding his father as leader. At this point in time and considering recent events, conjecture to that effect would be pointless.

South Korean officials have commented however that the half-brothers never actually met one another. There are 12 years between them both, and their father, Kim Jong-Il is known to have fathered children from at least three women.

Kim Jong-Nam had made frequent clandestine trips to Japan in the past and was a regular guest at a bathhouse in Yoshiwara, one of Tokyo's red light districts. However, the final straw for Kim Jong-Nam was in 2001 when he was exiled from North Korea after attempting to enter Japan on a false Dominican Republic passport. This was in the hope of taking his family to Tokyo Disneyland. This caused a serious diplomatic incident and a state visit planned to China by his father was cancelled.

Kim Jong-Nam lived in Macau predominately after his exile, and enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. The New York Times described him as "a globe-trotting playboy" and commented that he travelled with a female body guard. It is understood that while his father was still alive, the government in Pyongyang sent him considerable financial allowances which facilitated this behaviour.

This Wasn't the First Attempt

This has been the third reported attempt at Kim Jong-Nam's life. According to South Korean investigators, in 2010 a North Korean agent, Kim Young-Soo, attempted to bribe a taxi driver to run over Kim Jong-Nam in an apparent traffic accident. The plan failed when he didn't arrive at the location as expected. The agent confessed under interrogation two years later. Around this time South Korean intelligence officials spoke publicly to state there has been a standing order to assassinate Kim Jong-Nam since 2011. This was when Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father as North Korea's ruler. A second assassination attempt has been reported to have happened in 2012, but the details remain secret. However, the third attempt has been successful.

If North Korea is indeed found to be responsible for Kim Jong-Nam's death, it would not be the first time Kim Jong-Un has eliminated a perceived threat to his leadership from within his own family. Jang Sung-Taek, the uncle of the North Korean leader was executed in 2014 by firing squad. This is most likely due to internal disagreements within Pyongyang. It should be noted that Jang Sung-Taek was somewhat of a father figure to Kim Jong-Nam, this is a pertinent link and may suggest they were both seen as threats. Occasional bloody purges have been used to kill off anyone of questionable loyalty and set an example for others.

The Assassination: What Happened?

Kim Jong-Nam arrived in Kuala Lumpur on 6th February using a diplomatic passport with a false name. It is highly likely that the assassination plan had been in place long before then. Four North Korean men accused of organizing the attack had begun to arrive from January 31st, each arriving on different days. The last arrived on February 7th, one day after Kim Jong-Nam. We can now assess with almost complete certainty that these men are North Korean agents, working directly under instruction from Pyongyang. Malaysia allows North Koreans to enter without a visa and also makes working there quite easy. This porous border created a perfect backdrop with suitable initial anonymity for the attack to take place.

  • For anyone reading who is unfamiliar with the ways in which intelligence agencies can conduct operations in foreign territory, the four North Korean agents would not have been there to conduct the assassination themselves:
  • Intelligence agents, normally referred to as spies, rarely do the "dirty" work themselves; this could be anything from collecting sensitive information to conducting a killing (which is extremely rare and abhorred politically). These individuals are usually "handlers", and they will conduct their operations by recruiting local agents to do this work for them; using significant financial incentives, or through bribery and threats.
  • The four North Korean agents recruited two Malaysian women, Ms. Huong and Ms. Siti from local entertainment establishments. Malaysian authorities have reported that the two women practiced the attack in two shopping malls as rehearsals, to perfect the strategy and identify any issues with the plan. The method by which the women were recruited is unknown.
  • There have been reports that the women were duped and had been told they were participating in a televized prank, I assess this to be unlikely: The aggression used in the attack is indicative of something more sinister than an innocent practical joke. Furthermore, the women were filmed profusely washing their hands immediately afterwards, demonstrating that they understood the dangers of coming into contact with the nerve agent (further explanation of this can be found towards the end of the article).
  • On the morning of 13th February, Kim Jong-Nam arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport for his return flight. Security videos show him entering the departure hall at Terminal 2, checking the departure board before walking toward the check-in counter for AirAsia, a budget airline. It was at this point that he was attacked, and the entire encounter was over in a matter of seconds. The women approached from two different angles; one to his left and the other directly behind. The women on the left reportedly sprayed something on Kim Jong-Nam's face, the women approaching from behind placed one hand around his neck to expose his face that was then wiped with a cloth.
  • It is likely that the VX nerve agent was placed on the cloth and smeared directly onto the skin. It is very unlikely that the spray was any form of agent because the two perpetrators would not have been able to avoid contact and would be dead. It may have been some form of distraction or a liquid that was designed to prime his skin. It is currently unknown.
  • The women began to make their escape, but first washed their hands. Kim Jong-Nam immediately approached airport and security staff waving his hands as he explained the attack. He was taken to the airport clinic one level down; within minutes he had collapsed and died en route to hospital. A Malaysian Chinese-language newspaper reported that his last words were "Very painful, very painful, I was sprayed with liquid". Kim Jong-Nam was likely cut off financially from Pyongyang in 2014 after his uncle's execution. This probably explains why he had no bodyguard, and was traveling on a budget airline. He was unprotected, especially against such a deadly chemical weapon.

VX nerve agent chemical structure
VX nerve agent chemical structure | Source
VX storage
VX storage | Source

What Is VX Nerve Agent?

VX is an excessively toxic and potent chemical agent that has been classed as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN, it is described by the US government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the most powerful nerve agent known to man, 100 times more deadly than Sarin. Approximately 0.01g, less than a drop on the skin will kill by being absorbed rapidly and disrupting the central nervous system.

The official name for the chemical is S-2 Diisoprophylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate, however it is of course known by its American code name of VX, with the 'V' standing for venom. There are five well known members of the V-series family of nerve agents (VE, VG, VM, VR and VX). It was invented in Britain in the 1950's by a chemist called Ranaji Ghosh who was working for Imperial Chemical Industries. It was manufactured for the purpose of chemical warfare as an area denial weapon. It was tested by the British military, and was then passed to the US who began full-scale production of the chemical in 1961.

VX is a clear, odourless, and tasteless liquid with an amber colour. Its consistency is like an oil and it does not mix well with water. When the toxin is ingested into the body through the skin or inhalation it sparks respiratory collapse and heart failure. Symptoms are likely to appear immediately and death can occur in minutes to hours depending on the dose. Initial symptoms are confusion, possible drowsiness, headache, nausea, vomiting, runny nose and watery eyes. These then give way to convulsions, seizures, loss of consciousness and paralysis, and eventually death. Within just minutes of the attack, Kim Jong-nam had a seizure and died shortly after which is evidence of how quickly this toxin destroys the central nervous system.

Interestingly there is a cure for VX, a drug called Atropine which is used to treat a wide variety of nerve agents and pesticide poisonings. It is carried in auto-injectors by soldiers operating in environments where there is a chemical threat; but it is rarely contained in even advanced first aid kits, plus it must be administered very quickly.

VX is only legally held in Russia and the United States. it was banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention except for "research, medical or pharmaceutical purposes”. Russia and America are the only countries who have officially admitted to owning VX stockpiles. North Korea is known however to have a supply of VX stockpiled, it never signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and experts have suggested North Korea has up to 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons.

With such a tiny quantity of VX needed to cause such devastating effect, it's important to now understand that this weapon can be used in such a way. Small quantities are easy to smuggle and a state sponsored assassin must only come within touching distance of their target to ensure a kill. This must certainly have implications worldwide, in the world of protective security, and the lengths to which North Korea are willing to go to remove a perceived threat.

© 2017 Harry Edgar

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