KUALA LUMPUR – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother was assassinated with a lethal nerve agent manufactured for chemical warfare, Malaysian police said 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 odorless, tasteless and highly toxic nerve agent VX.
Traces of VX — listed as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations — were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes.
The announcement raised serious questions about public safety in a building that was never decontaminated, since VX is deadly even in minute amounts.
Police previously said that the airport had not been decontaminated but that passengers should be confident it was safe. Asked Friday whether it had still not been decontaminated, police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said, “We are doing it now.” Details were not clear.
VX nerve agent has the consistency of motor oil and can take days or even weeks to evaporate. It could have contaminated anywhere Kim was afterward, including medical facilities and the ambulance in which he was transported, experts say.
Malaysian authorities also said Friday that they will check for radioactive material.
Police will “sweep all locations that we knew the suspects went to. We will get the experts from the atomic energy department to go to the location and sweep it to see if radioactive (material) is still there,” Khalid said. It was the first time police had mentioned “radioactive material,” and he did not elaborate on what could “still” be there.
Leaked CCTV footage from the brazen attack on Feb. 13 shows Kim being approached by two women who appear to put something in his face. Moments later he is seen asking for help from airport staffers, who direct him to a clinic. He suffered a seizure and died before he reached a hospital.
Khalid said on Friday that one of the women was affected by the poison. “She was vomiting,” he said in response to a question about whether the women felt the effects of VX.
He said investigators are still looking into where the deadly agent came from, whether it was developed somewhere in Malaysia or brought in from abroad.
Police had said earlier that after the two attackers rubbed a liquid on Kim’s face, they walked away and quickly washed their hands.
The seeming contradiction of a poison that could kill Kim quickly but not sicken the attackers has stumped experts.
Bruce Goldberger, a leading toxicologist at the University of Florida, said some protective measures must have been in place if the women handled the substance without gloves.”It’s also possible that the toxin was encapsulated, then activated when applied to the skin,” he said.
Khalid has said the woman who ambushed Kim from behind clearly knew she was carrying out a poison attack, dismissing her claim that she thought she was taking part in a TV prank. “The lady was moving away with her hands towards the bathroom,” he said this week. “She was very aware that it was toxic and that she needed to wash her hands.”
VX once was tested by the religious cult that carried out the deadly sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways in 1995. The attack by Aum Shinrikyo killed about a dozen commuters and severely injured dozens more.
Aum tried VX out on at least three victims, killing one whom cult members believed was a police informant. At their trial, the cultists said they had practiced using syringes to spray VX on people’s necks as they pretended to be jogging. The suspected informant spent 10 days in a coma before dying.
Under the international Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, countries must declare stockpiles of VX and are obliged to progressively destroy their supplies.
But experts say the agent is stable, easy to transport and difficult to detect with regular airport security measures.
Khalid said scientists were continuing to analyze “other exhibits” from the autopsy.
Malaysian detectives are holding three people — the two 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 a senior North Korean Embassy official.
Police have acknowledged that his diplomatic status prevents them from questioning him unless he surrenders himself.
North Korea’s state media broke a 10-day silence 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 Malaysia for not releasing the corpse “under the absurd pretext” that it needs a DNA sample from the dead man’s family.
A senior Malaysian police official said Thursday that a relative of Kim Jong Nam will arrive in Malaysia in “one or two days’ time.”
Malaysia’s deputy police chief, Noor Rashid Ibrahim, said one of Kim’s family members living “not far from Malaysia” is expected to cooperate with local authorities in completing identification and other necessary procedures.
North Korea has never acknowledged the victim as the brother of Kim Jong Un, and KCNA called 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 U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes it as the “most potent” of all nerve agents and much more toxic than sarin when absorbed through the skin. “It is possible that any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal,” the CDC said.
All nerve agents prevent 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.