VX death in Malaysia raises fear of North Korean chemical attack


PETALING JAYA: The assassination of Kim Jong Nam through the use of the deadly VX nerve agent serves as a warning that North Korea may be willing to use its stockpile of chemical weapons to kill and threaten its enemies in other countries, The Washington Post (WP) reported on Thursday.

The daily reported that US and South Korean intelligence agencies have long believed that North Korea possessed significant stores of VX and sarin, and probably biological weapons as well.

It said the killing of the estranged half-brother of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (klia2) had forced US officials to consider the possibility of a clandestine attack that would be difficult to trace or defend against.

“With biological weapons, especially, there’s an opportunity for covert attack with deniability, since attribution would be difficult,” Andrew C. Weber, former US assistant secretary of defence for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons defence, was quoted as saying.

He said although U.S. officials are engrossed on North Korea’s nuclear advances, a nuclear attack “is not the most likely, or possibly even the most consequential.”

“A chemical attack would be knowable, almost as soon as it happens,” Weber was quoted as saying.

“But Kim Jong Un is a brutal guy, and he may have no qualms against doing it. Or he may just miscalculate.”

The report said Jong Nam’s assassination also demonstrated that the delivery of such weapons, including deadly pathogens and toxic chemicals, could be easy to accomplish, with military response delayed for days or weeks while investigators attempt to find evidence of the perpetrator.

Jong Nam was waiting to board a flight to Macau on Feb 13 when two women suddenly approached him and wiped his face with a liquid later identified as VX. He died while being brought to the Putrajaya Hospital.

The two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 28, have since been charged for murder under Section 302 of the Penal Code which carries the mandatory death penalty upon conviction.

There has been speculation that they were somehow duped into performing the alleged murder by North Korean agents who told them it was for a game show. The agents are believed to have left Malaysia.

Sue Mi Terry, a former senior analyst on North Korea at the CIA and currently managing director for Korea at the Bower Group Asia, was cited by WP as saying that the choice of the weapon at the airport was not coincidental.

“Everything about this incident was intended to send a message,” she was quoted as saying.

The report said that according to other current and former US officials, North Korea would have calculated that the VX would be found eventually.

It said Jong Un’s plan was to showcase his ability to strike with terrifying weapons, while also concealing the evidence to reduce the chances of retaliation.

“His message about VX was, ‘We have it’,” Terry was quoted as saying. “He knew they would eventually find it.”

The WP report added that a US State Department report in 2001 found that North Korea was “already self-sufficient” in making necessary precursors for sarin and VX, as well as older weapons such as mustard gas.

It said US agencies had drawn from sources such as North Korean defectors and spies, as well as satellite photos and electronic eavesdropping, to calculate the size of North Korea’s chemical stockpile at between 2,500 and 5,000 tonnes.