The murder of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia has all the elements of a Hollywood murder mystery movie, but the dangers it poses are real. Earlier, Malaysian authorities found that Kim, the half-brother of North Korean leader King Jong-un, died after exposure to a VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon. And while the mastermind of that apparent assassination has yet to be determined, the evidence reported so far points to North Korea.
The implications to travelers and the public at large are terrifying. The VX nerve agent may have been brought in aboard a passenger aircraft. If so, it would have had to transit at least one other country – almost certainly China, as it is North Korea’s main hub for traveling overseas and provides the most direct route from North Korea to Kuala Lumpur. Such an undertaking, whether by covert operatives or officials traveling in the open and abusing the inviolability of diplomatic pouches, would have risked exposing hundreds or even thousands of other people onboard and in both the Kuala Lumpur and, presumably, Beijing airports. North Korea has proven to be capable and willing not only to use these dangerous chemical agents in assassinations across many countries, but also to illicitly transport them through densely populated areas.
North Korea had used its chemical agents against those it deemed to be a threat to its regime. In 1996, South Korean diplomat ChoeTok-kun was killed in Vladivostok by an injection of neostigmine bromine, a signature North Korean poison. In the same year, a South Korean executive of Kia, Pak Pyong-hyon, was assassinated in Yanji, Jilin province in China. The attackers stabbed him in the waist with a poison needle shaped like a ballpoint pen, a common instrument used by North Korean assassins. Six North Korean spies were arrested in South Korea with similar pens a few years later.
In 2011, South Korean missionary Kim Chang Hwan was assassinated with bromide poisoning (like neostigmine) near the North Korean border with China, in the Dandong region. Kim had been waiting for a taxi in front of a department store when he suddenly began to froth in the mouth and fainted. He was taken to a hospital, but died a few hours later.
It is interesting to note that Kim Jong-nam also had foam in his mouth when he collapsed at the airport concourse in Kuala Lumpur.
North Korea has an established chemical weapons program that it is trying to keep secret. Reports estimate that it has stockpiled between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and continues to expand and develop its arsenal. North Korea operates three separate biological weapons research institutes, including one in Kanggye, and maintains production facilities in Sinuiju, Anju, Sunchon, Hamhung, Sinhung, Manpo, Aoji and Chongjin. North Korea also has eight chemical weapons storage facilities, including one in Wangjebong north of the armistice line.
While the true extent of their stockpile is not fully ascertained, North Korea is known to possess a broad range of chemical weapons: Tabun, Sarin, Soman and V-line gases (like VE, VX and VG) that harm the nervous system; Phosgene and Diphosgene, which affect respiration; Cyanic Hydrogen and Cyanogen Chloride, which act on the blood; blistering agents Distilled Mustard and Phosgene Oxime; vomit-inducing Diphenylchloroarsine and Adamsite; and BZ, which incapacitates victims. Potassium cyanide, methyl parathion and sodium monofluoroacetate have also been used in past assassinations in North Korea’s clandestine operations.
North Korean defectors attest that those working in the Biological and Chemical Weapons Institute, without exception, receive the highest class treatment and receive favors, such as foodstuff and clothing. Based on the way the employees of the chemicals weapons industry live, one could assume that they are producing a significant volume of biological and chemical weapons. How else can they explain such favorable treatment in an otherwise impoverished country?
More to the point, what will North Korea do with those chemical weapons? Who might be its next target? And if something goes wrong in another attack in a public place, who and how many might suffer as collateral damage? The answers are unsettling to ponder.