The Murder of Kim Jong-nam Is A Bigger Deal than Anyone Is Saying
Authored by Eric Lumsden
At the time of Kim Jon-nam’s assassination there was very little buzz surrounding the methods employed to kill him. Most of the media attention focused on the assassins, including the fascination with one woman’s ‘LOL’ shirt. Both claimed to be confused, thinking they were on a reality show.
The White House was slow to issue a statement and news outlets followed suit with little focus on the seriousness of the infraction. Of course the facts were reported, but very few articles provided context for just how serious the organophosphorus (OP) nerve agent VX is. Some articles, including this one from CNN, do go into detail regarding the method of action of the OP nerve agent and the New York Times had a piece outlining the chemical weapons capabilities North Korea may have. Few reports have described the ramifications of the act. By demonstrating their willingness to employ VX, North Korea has signaled they do in fact have nerve agents and they’re willing to use them. When the Trump Administration issued a statement on North Korea, the focus was primarily on the nuclear capabilities and not on chemical warfare. Some outlets have discussed the seriousness of a bolder North Korea, including on foreign policy podcasts like Pod Save the World, but their focus mirrors the President’s.
The most recent instance of OP nerve agent poisoning was in Damascus, when it was reported that as many as 1,300 Syrians may have been killed. This attack was carried out using rockets filled with Sarin, an OP compound similar to VX. While North Korea is still struggling with successful rocket tests, having a rocket launch fail as recently as March 22, nerve agent attacks don’t need rockets to be successful.
22 years ago there was an attack in a Tokyo subway in which members of a Japanese cult released sarin gas in subway cars on three different subway lines during rush hour, resulting in 12 deaths and injuries to thousands more. The method for releasing the poisonous gas was nowhere near as complex as the rockets used in Damascus. Plastic bags filled with the gas were smuggled into the trains and punctured using umbrellas, releasing sarin into the cars. While North Korea has struggled with rocket launches, this style of attack is well within their capabilities.
Sarin is a slightly different beast than the compound used to kill Kim Jong-Nam. While VX is more potent than sarin, it is also oily and harder to vaporize at room temperature. However, it is estimated that North Korea may have as many as 5,000 tons of chemical and biological weapons stockpiled and according to South Korean experts it is likely they have the capability to carry out attacks similar to Tokyo in 1995. Chemical defense expert Rohan Gunaratna believes that the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam was a signal to the rest of the world: our rockets aren’t working, but we have other methods.
Nuclear weapons are powerful, horrifically deadly and frightening. They are also difficult to create and control tightly on an international level. The lack of attention we are giving to chemical weapons if a grave misstep and, to me, is also frightening. Maybe it’s because I have learned about them throughout my time in graduate school. Maybe it’s because I’ve read about how even the survivors face long-term effects that can be devastating. Maybe it’s because while we have standard protocols for responding to these attacks they aren’t perfect. Regardless, the method for Kim Jong-Nam’s assassination was a bigger deal than the current administration is saying, and that is the most frightening of all.