Malaysia says VX nerve agent was used in Kim Jong-nam assassination
VX is the deadliest nerve agent ever created and just a tiny drop absorbed through the skin is enough to cause “fatal disruption of the nervous system”, making it 100 times more deadly than sarin gas
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half brother was assassinated with a lethal nerve agent manufactured for chemical warfare, Malaysian police said on Friday.
Releasing a preliminary toxicology report on Kim Jong-nam’s murder at a Kuala Lumpur airport, police said the poison used by the assassins was the odourless, tasteless and highly toxic nerve agent VX. Traces of VX were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes.
VX is the deadliest nerve agent ever created. Just a tiny drop absorbed through the skin is enough to cause “fatal disruption of the nervous system”, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Watch: death of Kim Jong-nam sparks row between Malaysia and North Korea
So potent is VX – its full chemical name is S-2 Diisoprophylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate – that the UN classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction.
It is 100 times more deadly than the nerve gas sarin, which was used by members of a Japanese doomsday cult in their deadly 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. It is also incredibly hard to detect. It is a clear, tasteless and colourless liquid with a consistency something like engine oil.
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.
All nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of an enzyme that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without that switch, the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated, and eventually tire and become unable to sustain breathing.
VX was first synthesised by in the early to mid-1950s Ranaji Ghosh, a chemist working for the British firm Imperial Chemical Industries.
Its toxicity and physical properties were studied by warfare specialists in Britain, who passed the formula on to the US military , according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Washington. The US began full-scale production of VX in 1961.
The US army was involved in several controlled and accidental releases of VX gas. Iraq was reported to have produced over 50 tonnes. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq is thought to have used VX in a 1988 attack against the Kurds and during the Iran-Iraq war.
North Korea claims it has never had a chemical weapons programme. But in fact it is believed to possess between 2,500 and 5,000 tons – behind only the US and Russia – including VX, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).
“The South Korean government assesses that North Korea is able to produce most types of chemical weapons indigenously, although it must import some precursors to produce nerve agents, which it has done in the past,” the NTI said.
“At maximum capacity North Korea is estimated to be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons of [chemical weapons]. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX are thought be to be the focus of North Korean production.”
Leaked CCTV footage from the brazen attack on February 13 shows the portly Kim being approached by two women who appear to put something in his face. Moments later he is seen asking for help from airport staff, who direct him to a clinic.
Malaysian police said he suffered a seizure and died before he reached hospital. An autopsy ruled out heart failure, and investigators had focused on the theory that a toxin was applied to his face, in what South Korea has insisted was a targeted assassination.
Malaysian detectives are holding three people – women from Indonesia and Vietnam, and a North Korean man – but want to speak to seven others.
North Korea’s state media broke a 10-day silence on Thursday on the murder launching a ferocious assault on Malaysia for “immoral” handling of the case and for playing politics with the corpse.
The North’s official KCNA news agency said Malaysia bore prime responsibility for the death, and accused it of conspiring with South Korea.
It also condemned the Malaysian authorities for not releasing the corpse “under the absurd pretext” that it needs a DNA sample from the dead man’s family.
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”.
Additional reporting by The Guardian