By Cindy Vestergaard
On 13 February, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader died en route to the hospital after complaining that two women had rubbed chemicals into his face at Kuala Lumpur airport. Ten days later, the Malaysian police identified the substance as a chemical weapon, specifically the nerve agent VX.
What is VX?
VX has been around for sixty-five years. First developed in the 1950s by British scientists studying insecticides, VX is the deadliest of nerve agents. A small drop can be fatal, attacking the nervous system, leaving victims disoriented, gasping for air, losing control of bladder and bowels, followed by vomiting, convulsions, paralysis and finally cardiorespiratory failure. It is persistent with adhesive properties, meaning it lingers and sticks to surfaces. Depending on the dosage, symptoms show up within minutes (as they did for Jong-nam) and upwards of 18-24 hours after contact.
Last weekend, authorities in Malaysia declared Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2 (KLIA2) free of any traces of VX, although this would not be surprising given sweeps were done almost two weeks after the incident. But a number of questions remain: it has yet to be confirmed whether either of the two women involved tested positive for VX, or any of its precursors. It has been said that one who had wiped the cloth across the victim’s face was vomiting afterwards, so why is she not dead?
Questions to be answered
It’s not clear from the CCTV footage if the woman was wearing gloves. Whether latex or bare hands or cross-contamination on clothes or other parts of the body, the dosage must have been high enough to induce vomiting but low enough not to be fatal. One possibility suggests each woman could have carried a precursor on their hands which, when combined, formed VX on the victim’s face. This could potentially explain why the second woman experienced more symptoms than the first, but we have yet to learn whether either received a pre-treatment or an antidote. If so, this would presuppose co-conspirators wanted the women to live, at least long enough to do the deed, if not escape capture.
Their fate however was more likely collateral to the mission. Suspicions therefore fall to Kim Jong-un, who in his first five years as supreme leader of North Korea, has executed more than 300 senior officials for crimes such as slouching and bad attitude. North Korea also repeatedly flaunts U.N. Security Council resolutions, testing nuclear weapons (twice) last year and repeatedly test-firing short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service also recently identified six of those suspected to be involved in the murder to be officials of the DPRK regime. Another two are affiliated with Air Koryo, the North’s air carrier and Singwang Economics and Trading General Corporation, a company listed under UN sanctions.
North Korea is also suspected of having a chemical weapons program with estimates of stockpiles upwards of 5,000 metric tonnes, including nerve agents such as VX. While others such as Russia and the United States are destroying their stockpiles as parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Pyongyang never signed or acceded to the treaty.
Brazen and Public
The killing of Jong-nam follows the same pattern as other political assassinations. Some of the most famous were done in public and involved chemical or (more recently) radiological agents. One of the most legendary is the 1978 death of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian defector and BBC journalist who died after being pricked by an umbrella tip loaded with a ricin pellet while waiting for a morning bus on London’s Waterloo Bridge. Twenty-eight years later, also in London, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died from acute radiation poisoning after sipping tea laced with polonium-210 at a hotel.
Although North Korea has a history of carrying out assassinations abroad, the use of VX would be a first. Indeed, it would be the first known chemical of choice for a state-run assassination. It would not however be the first use by a non-state actor. In 1994 and 1995, the apocalyptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo, carried out a series of successful (and failed) VX attacks in Japan. One individual was killed; two others were injured but survived. One of the survivors suffered cardiorespiratory arrest and was in critical condition for ten days. The right side of his body was paralyzed and twenty years later, he still carries an oxygen tank.
International Incident, International Investigation
Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), States Parties can consult and cooperate directly among themselves, through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or other international procedures (such as those within the United Nations) on matters related to the Convention, including alleged use of chemical weapons. According to a statement released by the OPCW on 24 February, the Organization “stands ready to provide its expertise and technical assistance.” It is understood that the OPCW is in contact with Malaysian authorities and has provided some technical materials to assist with the internal investigation. What is not clear is why Malaysia has not requested more robust OPCW, or other international, assistance.
It should be noted that while North Korea is not a party to the CWC, it is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons. Therefore Malaysia – or any other member state of the United Nations – can trigger the U.N. Secretary-General’s Mechanism (SGM) for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons by reporting possible violations of the Protocol. In such cases, the OPCW works closely with the Secretary-General in investigating alleged use. For this there is already precedence as the first inquiry into the use of chemical weapons in Syria was the SGM (Syria at the time was a State Party to the Protocol, but not yet to the CWC).
A request for further assistance would not suggest that the Malaysian police or its National Authority Chemical Weapons Convention (NACWC) are not capable and competent. Indeed, the NACWC has a good reputation. What it would suggest is that given the severity of the attack – a banned chemical weapon released in an international airport – that additional resources would be welcomed. This is even more so given the added complexity of North Korea’s potential involvement, thereby crossing international borders, including the possible participation of international illicit networks.
From repetitive chemical attacks in Syria by the Assad regime to the use of mustard gas by Islamic State militants in Syria and against Kurdish forces in Iraq, the attack in Kuala Lumpur demonstrates that the threat of chemical weapons not only endures in the 21st century, but is spreading. A request for assistance would therefore underscore that international procedures of investigation are not only prudent, but also standard modern practice in addressing the alleged use of chemical weapons.
Cindy Vestergaard is a Senior Associate and Director of the Nuclear Safeguards program at the Stimson Center.