Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
Nerve Agent Was Used To Kill North Korean Leader’s Half Brother
Malaysian police announced Friday that Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother, could have been killed by VX nerve agent, a highly toxic chemical compound banned by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
The announcement that police found traces of the nerve agent on Kim’s face has raised the stakes in a political murder mystery that has implicated several suspects — at least eight North Koreans and two Southeast Asian women — and raised tensions between North Korea and some of its Asian neighbors.
Kim Jong Nam, 46, was once considered a potential successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, and South Korean officials have accused Pyongyang of ordering his assassination. On Feb. 13, as Kim Jong Nam waited at the Kuala Lumpur airport, two women approached and apparently spread poison on his face, Malaysian police suspect.
He complained to airport staff that he felt dizzy, then died en route to a hospital.
The two women — one from Vietnam and one from Indonesia — are in custody, and at least one suffered the chemical’s effects. “She was vomiting,” Malaysia’s inspector general, Khalid Abu Bakar, told reporters.
Authorities were still trying to determine how VX entered Malaysia, the police official said. Leaked airport surveillance video shows the female suspects going to wash their hands after the attack, suggesting that they were trained to deal with the poison. Police said they practiced their assault at other Malaysian locations.
VX, first developed in Britain in the 1950s, is odorless and tasteless. It’s an oily liquid, amber in color, that evaporates slowly — about as fast as motor oil, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nerve agents typically act rapidly, within seconds of exposure. They may be absorbed through the skin or through the respiratory tract. “Exposure to a lethal dose may cause death in less than 15 minutes,” according to a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report on the chemical.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said experts have long suspected North Korea of developing a chemical weapons program. He called it “highly unlikely” that the poison came from any other country. VX nerve agent is banned by an international chemical weapons convention, but North Korea was not a signatory.
“If, as is widely suspected, Kim Jong Nam was assassinated — murdered under the direction of the North Korean government — and this is in fact VX nerve agent, this would confirm that North Korea has that type of chemical agent,” he said.
“So this has sort of a double meaning,” Kimball continued. “Whoever used this, first of all, had access to a very specialized, difficult-to-produce chemical. And they were probably not just trying to assassinate this person, but trying to send a message that they have VX nerve agent.”
North Korea at one time was thought to have at least eight chemical research locations, according to a 2005 report by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a nonprofit think tank in Washington. Several of those were thought to be near the border with its rival, South Korea.
North Korea has refused to acknowledge that the man killed in Malaysia is Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in exile in China. Instead, the government-controlled media has referred to him as a “citizen of the DPRK.”
Earlier this week, Malaysian police reported an attempted break-in at the morgue where Kim Jong Nam’s body was being held. They did not give further details.
On Thursday, the North Korean state news agency KCNA denied that he was “poisoned to death,” insisting that he died of a “heart stroke.” Malaysian police “recklessly made (the poisoning) an established fact, only to make matters complicated,” it said.
The report accused Malaysia of carrying out the autopsy “in disregard of the DPRK’s just demand and international law.”
Four North Korean suspects left Malaysia on Feb 13 — the same day the incident happened — according to police. At least three others have been implicated by police, including one high-ranking diplomat in North Korea’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Another North Korean, a scientist working in Malaysia, has been detained.
Raymond Zilinskas, who directs the chemical and biological nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and has worked as a consultant on biological weapons for the television spy drama “The Americans,” said that when he first heard the news about Kim Jong Nam’s death, “I thought for sure it was going to be chemical.”
Zilinskas, who initially suspected cyanide, said VX destroys an enzyme that regulates the twitching of muscles. Anyone exposed to sizable amounts would almost immediately lose control of their tear ducts, nasal passages and urinary functions, among other things, he said.
“When that happens, the muscles go crazy,” he said. “If you’re being exposed to a fair amount, you’re going to die very quickly, sometimes in five minutes.”
Zilinskas is still somewhat skeptical about the VX determination by Malaysian authorities, because VX in liquid form can soak into the skin. “It’s puzzling that you have these assassins being able to reach Kim and smear his face with what the Malaysians say is VX,” he said. “How did the assassins survive?”
Hypothetically, he said, it’s possible the assassins used a “binary” mixture that relies on two less toxic substances. The United States has in the past developed this split mixture.
When combined, the two chemicals form the more deadly VX. It might be possible, for example, that each woman carried a single chemical component of the deadly agent and mixed them on Kim Jong Nam’s face. That might explain how the assassins walked away, he said, stressing that the discussion was hypothetical.
©2017 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
An Army veteran from Columbus claimed he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after a deployment in Afghanistan that earned him a Purple Heart and Silver Star.
As a result, he collected $76,000 in benefits for the mental condition.
He admitted Wednesday, however, that all of that was a lie.
He was not deployed to Afghanistan, never suffered PTSD and never received the two honors, which are among the highest bestowed for military service.
SAN DIEGO — Days after Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to a federal felony related to a yearslong campaign finance scandal, he has finally stated explicitly that he will resign from his congressional seat before the end of his term.
"Shortly after the holidays I will resign from Congress," Hunter, R-Calif., in a statement. "It has been an honor to serve the people of California's 50th District, and I greatly appreciate the trust they have put in me over these last 11 years."
A collision between a Coast Guard boat and a Navy vessel near Kodiak Island, Alaska on Wednesday landed six coasties and three sailors to the hospital, officials said.
The Navy has identified the two Defense Department civilians who were killed in a shooting Wednesday at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii.
A shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida has left four people dead, including the gunman, law enforcement officials said at a Friday news conference.
The shooter and two victims were killed at the base and another victim died after being taken to the hospital, said Chip Simmons, deputy chief of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office.
Another seven people remain hospitalized, including two sheriff's deputies who engaged the gunman, Simmons said at Friday's news conference. One was hit in the arm and the other was shot in the knee. Both are expected to recover.