Mysterious poisoning of Kim Jong Nam highlights threat to US

WASHINGTON — Malaysian police have determined that Kim Jong Nam, brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was killed in Malaysia with an internationally banned nerve agent. The question troubling authorities worldwide is how VX nerve agent got inside Malaysia and into the hands of the killers.

VX is one of the most toxic of all known chemical agents.

It works by disrupting the body’s nervous system, and extremely small doses, depending on the purity, can be lethal.

“Just a drop on the skin would likely be enough to kill,” said Karl Dewey, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear analyst at Jane’s.

Beyond the harsh lethality of VX is the reality that the North Korean regime, which has threatened assassinations and attacks on officials and individuals around the world, is by far the leading suspect in the case.

The message the attack sends has been nothing short of chilling to diplomats who deal with North Korea.

“Using VX nerve agent in a public airport, a banned weapon of mass destruction, is a stark reminder that North Korea, if indeed it’s behind this assassination, will use any means possible to deal with what they perceive to be enemies of their state,” said Ambassador Joe Detrani, former U.S. mission manager for North Korea.

U.S. security officials are worried as well.

“A rogue state has used something recognized as a weapon of mass destruction to carry out an
assassination in a third country. The implications of this cannot be overstated,” said Mike Maness, former senior operations officer with the CIA and current director at TrapWire Inc.

On Feb. 13, at about 9:30 a.m. local time, surveillance video from the airport showed Kim Jong Nam walking into Kuala Lumpur airport’s KLIA2 terminal. He briefly stopped to look at the overhead message board, then stepped up to a self-check-in counter. Two women approached him.

In a burst of activity, one stood in front, while the other quickly approached from behind, abruptly and forcefully reaching over the back of his shoulders and covering his face with her hands and what appeared to be a cloth.

It was over in approximately three seconds. CCTV showed the two women hurrying way. It happened so fast that no one seemed to even react to what happened.

Kim Jong Nam could be seen a few moments later approaching an information counter asking for help, complaining of dizziness. He died en route to Putrajaya Hospital.

Four people — including the two female attackers, one Vietnamese, the other Indonesian, and a North Korean national — were all arrested within three days. But four North Koreans, who arrived in Malaysia days before Kim Jong Nam was killed, fled the country the day he was attacked and remained at-large at the time this article was published.

Malaysian authorities announced Friday the stunning news that VX was used, setting international security officials on edge.

The cleanup

The immediate concern for authorities in Malaysia was the difficult cleanup process. A chemical weapons/biological weapons expert, currently deployed overseas, told WTOP: “In its pure state, a single drop of VX can be lethal. As such, the compound used in the Malaysia attack was probably diluted to some extent. Regardless, VX is a very viscous and persistent compound requiring highly specialized cleaning techniques.”

The expert pointed out that cleaning up the locations where the attack happened “would require much more than sponging and scrubbing with Mr. Clean.”

Stratfor, the global intelligence firm, said on Friday in one of its threat briefings that “one of the two detained female suspects reportedly presented symptoms of VX exposure, including vomiting, but was to be in stable condition.”

The two women reportedly may have had access to the antidote for VX, but that information could not be independently verified.

“Officials have seized unspecified chemicals from a condo and arrested the Malaysian owner,” Stratfor also said in its briefing, “but have not said whether the chemical agent, which is an illegal substance, was brought into Malaysia from abroad or acquired in the country.”

Tracking the source

Malaysia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force on April 29, 1997, and currently has 192 states and parties. That, according to experts, rules out Malaysia as the source of the agent.

North Korea, on the other hand is among four countries that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty banning agents like VX.

South Korean military officials stated on Friday that they believe North Korea has 2,500–5,000 tons of VX in storage facilities.

The question authorities are wrestling with is how the agent got into Malaysia.

Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, suspects a diplomatic pouch was used.

“I think this was an old school method, much like Gadhafi and the Libyans and Saddam Hussein used in Iraq. To get this kind of chemical agent into the country, I think it’s very reasonable to look at the diplomatic pouch as a method of delivery.”

A “diplomatic pouch” according to the U.S. State Department, is “any properly identified and sealed package, pouch, envelope, bag, or other container that is used to transport official correspondence, documents, and other articles intended for official use, between embassies, legations, consular posts, and the foreign office of any government … in the United States or in a foreign country.”

It is not subject to inspection. In a posting on its website, the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions explains why.

“In accordance with Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), properly designated diplomatic pouches ‘shall not be opened or detained.’ Although inspection of a pouch by X-ray would not physically break the external seal of the shipment, such an action constitutes the modern-day electronic equivalent of “opening” a pouch. As a result, the United States does not search properly designated and handled diplomatic pouches, either physically or electronically (e.g., by X-ray) and considers it a serious breach of the clear obligations of the VCDR for another country to do so.”

But there is another possible scenario.

“North Korea has an airline that flies into Kuala Lumpur. It could’ve been brought in by a stewardess or passenger,” said Dr. David Kay, former U.N. weapons inspector.

And Kay, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, believes it could’ve been smuggled in without detection.

“If you’re smuggling the amount necessary for an assassination not for an attack on the city, it’s really very easy. You’re talking about an amount of liquid that is easily contained in a normal capsule of medicines or vitamins that we all have.”

Kay said no country is immune to the possibility of such an attack.

“Quite frankly, you could smuggle it without fear of detection through even advanced countries like the U.K. Germany, France, even the United States.”

Several law enforcement sources told WTOP that the ease of smuggling VX is particularly concerning because North Korea, which operates a diplomatic mission in New York, has made countless threats to U.S. officials. And it enjoys all the privileges associated with the “diplomatic pouch.”

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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