Investigators identify substance used to murder Kim Jong-uns half-brother as an agent that UN calls a weapon of mass destruction
Malaysian police have said the substance used in the killing of Kim Jong-nam was a VX nerve agent, a highly toxic liquid used only in chemical warfare.
The finding follows a preliminary analysis of swabs taken of the face and eyes of the victim, who is the half-brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. More items are still being analysed.
The substance also known as ethyl N-2-Diisopropylaminoethyl Methylphosphonothiolate is classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
Kim Jong-nam died on 13 February from a seizure on his way to hospital after complaining that a woman had sprayed chemicals on his face at Kuala Lumpur airport. Leaked CCTV footage show a woman grabbing his face. Malaysian police had said earlier two attackers rubbed a liquid on Kim Jong-nam before walking away and quickly washing their hands.
Asked about the possibility that North Korean agents may have imported the worlds most toxic nerve agent and deployed it in an international airport, a source close to the Malaysia government commented: Not very diplomatic.
Malaysias Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar later told reporters that authorities were determining how VX entered the country.
China, which afforded a level of protection to Kim Jong-nam during his stays there and in Macau, has yet to comment on the finding.
The US governments Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes VX as the most potent of all nerve agents and one that would be lethal on contact with the skin unless it was immediately washed off. Its only known use is in chemical warfare, it says.
The agency says exposure to a large dose of VX may result in convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis and fatal respiratory failure. Kim Jong-nam is reported to have complained of pain in his face shortly after the attack. A leaked photo at the medical centre shows him laid back on a chair with his eyes closed.
VX is a clear, colourless liquid with the consistency of engine oil. A fraction of a drop, absorbed through the skin, is enough to fatally disrupt the nervous system, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. It was developed in the 1950s in the UK during research into pesticides but was later found to be too toxic to be used safely.
Saddam Hussein was accused of using VX during the Iran-Iraq War and there are concerns that stockpiles also exist in Syria. Only the US and Russia have said they possess VX or a similar agent.
North Korea is thought to have among the worlds largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, and is one of six countries not to have signed or acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), according to the US non-profit organisation the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
South Korea believes the North is able to produce most types of chemical weapons and Pyongyang is thought to be concentrating upon sulphur mustard, chlorine, phosgene, sarin and the V-agents, of which VX is one. Defectors have accused North Korea of testing its chemical agents on people.
Malaysian police said its Centre for Chemical Weapons was still analysing other items related to Kim Jong-nam, who lived most of his life outside his home country.
As a weapon, VX does not quickly dissipate and can remain on material or the ground for long periods.
Raymond Zilinskas, who directs the chemical and biological nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said it seemed unlikely the killers applied VX directly.
Even if they or her were wearing gloves, the fumes would have killed them, he said. He suggested the assassins may have used a binary concoction, smearing two non-fatal elements of VX which mix on the victims face to form deadly VX.
He added that as North Korea does not belong to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Malaysia may ask the UN secretary general to investigate the matter.
Whether North Korea would allow UN inspectors to enter the country is of course a big question. But the matter certainly could be taken up by UN security council and/or general assembly.