North Korea leader’s half brother killed by VX nerve agent: Malaysia police

The lethal nerve agent is used in chemical warfare and listed by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction.

A police officer closes the main gate of the forensics wing of the Hospital Kuala Lumpur in the Malaysian capital, where the body of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is being kept. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP
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KUALA LUMPUR // North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half brother was murdered with a nerve agent manufactured for chemical warfare and listed by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction, Malaysian police said on Friday.

Releasing a preliminary toxicology report on Kim Jong-nam’s death at Kuala Lumpur airport, police revealed the poison used by the assassins was the odourless, tasteless and highly toxic nerve agent VX.

North Korea has a vast chemical weapons stockpile, including VX, of up to 5,000 tonnes, South Korean experts claimed.

Traces of VX were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes, police said. Leaked CCTV footage from the February 13 murder shows him being approached by two women who appear to push something in his face.

A tiny drop of the agent is enough to fatally damage a victim’s central nervous system.

One of the two women suspects who remain in custody fell ill after the killing. Police said she had been vomiting.

National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar added atomic energy experts would sweep the airport’s busy terminal where the Cold War-era attack took place for traces of the toxin, the most deadly chemical agent yet developed, as well as other locations the women passed through.

Mr Khalid said detectives would look for the source of the VX.

“We are investigating how it entered the country,” he said.

However, he added that “if the amount of the chemical brought in was small, it would be difficult for us to detect”.

A leading regional security expert said it would not have been difficult to smuggle VX into Malaysia in a diplomatic pouch, which are not subject to regular customs checks.

North Korea has used the pouches “to smuggle items including contraband and items that would be subjected to scrutiny if regular travel channels were used”, said Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

Mr Khalid has said the woman who ambushed Kim from behind clearly knew she was carrying out a poison attack, dismissing claims that she thought she was taking part in a TV prank.

“The lady was moving away with her hands towards the bathroom,” Mr Khalid said earlier this week. “She was very aware that it was toxic and that she needed to wash her hands.”

The leaked CCTV footage shows Kim asking for help from airport staff, who direct him to a clinic, after he is ambushed.

Police said he suffered a seizure and died before he reached hospital.

Detectives are holding three people – women from Indonesia and Vietnam, and a North Korean man – but want to speak to seven others, four of whom are believed to have fled to Pyongyang.

One man wanted for questioning, who is believed to be still in Malaysia, is senior North Korean embassy official Hyon Kwang Song.

Police have acknowledged that his diplomatic status prevents them from questioning him unless he surrenders himself.

However, a North Korean official outside Pyongyang’s Kuala Lumpur embassy said that Malaysia had not submitted a request to speak to Hyon, despite the police chief earlier saying the embassy would be asked for assistance.

North Korea’s state media on Thursday launched attacked Malaysia for “immoral” handling of the case and for playing politics with the deceased.

North Korea has never acknowledged the victim as the estranged brother of leader Kim Jong-un and the lengthy KCNA dispatch avoided any reference to the dead man’s identity, calling him only “a citizen” of North Korea “bearing a diplomatic passport”.

The only known use of VX is as a chemical warfare agent and the US government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes it as the “most potent” of all nerve agents.

“It is possible that any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal,” the CDC said on its website.

VX was used by Japan’s Aum cult in the 1994 murder of an office worker in Osaka, and in the attempted murder of two other people.

The cult led by guru Shoko Asahara used sarin nerve gas for a deadly attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Asahara was sentenced to death for the subway murders as well as producing deadly substances, including sarin and VX.

* Agence France-Presse