Even Ian Fleming would have balked at getting James Bond involved in the plot. Half-brother of half-mad dictator gets attacked in an airport in broad daylight with the assassin using the most lethal poison known to the world, putting their own life at risk.
This is the current picture as to what happened to Kim Jong-nam in a check-in area at Kuala Lumpur airport, the CCTV pictures of which have gone viral around the world. However, all may not be quite as clear-cut as it seems and I suspect this story still has plenty of twists in it before it is fully played out.
Looking at the events first, toxicology reports suggest Kim was killed by the nerve agent VX, classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations. Known as being the most toxic of chemical nerve agents currently available, it is over 100 times more potent than sarin, with a drop the size of a grain of salt causing death within minutes.
Banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, it should not be manufactured by any state, and any in existence should be destroyed. It has no other use apart from being a chemical weapon, being absorbed into the body within seconds by inhalation, skin contact or ingestion. If exposed to VX, symptoms typically start within 30 seconds, with the usual pattern being chest tightness and coughing, blurring of vision, shortness of breath and headache. The nervous system then rapidly shuts down, causing seizures, collapse and death within minutes.
Malaysian police have stated that VX was detected in swabs taken from Kim’s eyes and face, and CCTV shows an assailant appearing to wipe a cloth across his face during the assault. Kim managed to walk to a nearby help desk to report what had happened before collapsing and dying on the way to hospital.
So, who is now manufacturing VX? Only Russia and America have admitted owning stockpiles, but North Korea has not signed the convention banning it and is thought to have the third largest stockpile in the world.
VX has actually been used for assassination purposes before, usually by the Japanese terror group Aum Shinrikyo (in their case it was sprayed on to their victims using a syringe). As it stands, the world’s finger of blame points at North Korea as being the agents of assassination and logic absolutely suggests this is the case.
And yet, and yet. Chemical weapons experts are increasingly scratching their heads at certain anomalies. How did the attackers avoid being killed by the VX they were using when they appeared to handle it without any form of protection? How did Kim manage to walk to seek help without any apparent symptoms? Why were the medics who treated Kim not affected by VX?
And, if this most lethal of nerve agents was used, why was the airport not closed for decontamination?
The medical reason as to why VX is so lethal is surprisingly straightforward. Its effect stems from its action on a body enzyme called acetyl cholinesterase. This breaks down acetylcholine — the chemical that transmits signals from nerves to muscles, causing muscles to contract. VX blocks this enzyme and so muscles rapidly enter a state of ‘super contraction’, causing death by paralysis to the muscles that cause breathing. Putting it at its most simplistic, Kim suffocated.
One possible way an assailant could protect themselves from being killed by VX would be to take a high dose of the drug atropine ahead of the attack. This can block the effect of VX, but is a high-risk strategy in view of the strength of the nerve agent, and does not explain why medics treating Kim were not affected, since VX can remain active on clothing for up to 30 minutes after use. Using VX in a capsule that was broken in Kim’s face could also have partially protected his attacker but the question as to how medics were subsequently unaffected remains.
Assuming that VX was the murder weapon, there is one other possible reason why Kim lived for as long as he did after being exposed: that the stocks that North Korea control are gradually degrading. VX has a limited shelf life and if the supply was made some years ago (as is likely) then Kim may have died from what was, in effect, an inferior batch of VX, albeit still lethal. (The Iraqi supply of VX discovered by UN inspectors after the first Gulf war was found to have degraded rapidly over a short period of time.)
George Bernard Shaw said ‘Assassination is the extreme form of censorship’ and, with North Korea being the most censored country on earth, his point remains sound. Be that as it may, we are no longer in the world of Ian Fleming. Fact has now become stranger than fiction and much, much more lethal.