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Kim Jong-nam killed by nerve agent, Malaysian police say, putting spotlight on chemical weapons

This latest development in Mr. Kim’s alleged assassination, which South Korean and US officials suspect of being directed by North Korea, is another reminder of the regime’s chemical weapons, often overshadowed by its nuclear program.

Passengers scan departure information at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia on Friday.
Associated Press
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Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean Supreme Leader’s estranged and exiled half-brother, was killed by a VX nerve agent, which is classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, Malaysian police said on Friday.

This latest development in Mr. Kim’s assassination, which South Korean and US officials have said they believe was decreed by Pyongyang, is another reminder of the regime’s secretive chemical weapons program, often overshadowed by its nuclear missile testing.

“The reported use of VX reminds us that not only is the North’s nuclear-missile threat serious but so are its asymmetric threats, including biochemical weapons and cyber that are all part of the regime’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) tool kit,” Duyeon Kim, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, told The New York Times on Friday.

The VX nerve agent, or S-2 Diisopropylaminoethyl methylphosphonothioate, was found on swabs taken from the victim’s face and eyes, according to Malaysian police. With two women suspects – one Vietnamese and the other Indonesian – and a North Korean man in detention, local authorities are still investigating whether this nerve agent was brought into Malaysia or made inside the country.

"If the amount of the chemical brought in was small, it would be difficult for us to detect," police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters, according to Reuters.

VX, which is tasteless and odorless, is believed to be the most deadly known nerve agent, and is banned globally, except for research. It was infamously used by Saddam Hussein’s forces in a 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, where it killed several thousand Iraqis; several thousand more have died from complications since.

By using it in such an usually high-profile murder at an international airport, North Korea – if its involvement is confirmed – sent a clear message to the world, turning the incident “into an event of potentially huge strategic ramifications,” biochemical weapon expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said in an opinion piece for The Guardian on Friday.

“In a single act the North Korean regime appear to be saying: we can kill anybody we want to anywhere in the world, and we do have chemical weapons – so, international community, time to sit up and listen,” Mr. de Bretton-Gordon, who is currently a director of the NGO Doctors Under Fire, wrote. “We, North Korea, are in the WMD club and a world player and expect to be treated as such.”

The scale of the regime’s chemical and biochemical weapons programs has always been difficult to nail down. The North could have up to 5,000 tons, South Korea said in a biennial defense white paper.

"The biggest weakness of chemical weapons is that their effectiveness expires soon and new supplies need to be made constantly, so North Korea maintaining a stockpile of up to 5,000 tons indicates a very strong production capability," Kim Dae Young, a military expert at South Korea's Korea Defense and Security Forum, told the Associated Press.

North Korea’s chemical weapons stockpile has raised new concerns in recent years. As former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel toured the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas in 2013, he warned against the sophistication of North Korea’s chemical arsenal, saying that “this is probably the only place in the world that we have always a risk of confrontation,” as The Christian Science Monitor reported at that time. How the world responds to Syria, where the United Nations has found evidence that the military used chemical weapons in the country's now nearly six-year civil war, could influence North Korea, Secretary Hagel warned at the time.

Now, with another alarming reminder in hand, some are looking for a stronger response from the international community.

“It is absolutely essential that we do not see a rerun of the debacle over the Syrian red line, where this crime against humanity went unpunished,” de Bretton-Gordon wrote, urging the UN Security Council to demand that North Korea sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws VX.

“Donald Trump has, in his own inimitable fashion, declared that he would not have allowed the red line issue in Syria to develop as it did,” he concluded. “This is the first chance for him to show his mettle and back up his rhetoric with plausible and demonstrative action.”

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.