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North Korea's Kim Jong Nam Killed With VX, the 'Most Toxic Weapon Ever'

Malaysian police revealed that his body contained traces of VX, a colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid that's deadly in microscopic amounts.
Image: Kim Jong Nam in 2007
Kim Jong Nam in 2007.JAPAN POOL VIA JIJI PRESS / AFP - Getty Images

The half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was assassinated using the deadliest nerve agent ever created.

VX is a chemical so potent that the United Nations classes it as a weapon of mass destruction.

Malaysian police revealed Friday that Kim Jong Nam's body contained traces of VX, a colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid that's deadly in microscopic amounts.

Authorities allege he was assassinated by two women who wiped the substance on his face while he waited to board a flight at Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13.

South Korean intelligence officials believe this was an assassination plot orchestrated by the North Korean government.

Here's the lowdown on VX.

What is it?

"VX is the most toxic chemical weapon ever produced," according to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former NATO commanding officer and leading chemical weapons expert.

"VX acts so quickly that victims would have to be injected with the antidote almost immediately to have a chance at survival"

It's banned under several international conventions and was designated a weapon of mass destruction by a U.N. resolution in April 1991.

Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when a British scientist named Ranajit Ghosh was researching pesticides and developed the "V-series" of nerve agents — the V stood for "venom."

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank, the compound was deemed too deadly for commercial use.

However, the U.K. shared the formula with the American government, which began full-scale production of VX in 1961.

Who has it?

During the Cold War, both Washington and Moscow built up large quantities of chemical weapons, including VX.

But after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, the U.S. says it has destroyed all of its arsenal and Russia has pledged to do the same by 2020.

Elsewhere, the spread of VX is believed to be relatively contained, mainly because it takes a sophisticated laboratory to produce.

Saddam Hussein was accused successfully weaponizing VX in the 1980s, before using it against Iranian forces and the Kurds.

A decade later, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo killed 12 people on the Tokyo subway using the less-toxic nerve agent sarin. The group also killed one person using VX.

Victims of a sarin attack by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo are taken to hospital in Tokyo, Japan, on March 20, 1995.Chiaki Tsukumo / AP

The apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam would add North Korea to this inglorious list.

Although the recent focus has been on its nuclear arsenal, the country is believed to possess between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.

"Nerve agents such as Sarin and VX are thought be to be the focus of North Korean production," it said, although Kim's death would be the first known occasion where the country has actually deployed it.

North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan are the only countries in the world that haven't signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

How does VX work?

Unlike sarin, which is usually deployed as a gas, VX is very slow to evaporate and is therefore usually found as a viscous liquid, similar in texture to motor oil or honey.

In this state, it's highly toxic when it comes into contact with skin.

"You need a microscopic amount to kill one person, which is what happened to Kim Jong Nam," said Bretton-Gordon, the chemical weapons expert.

Kim Jong Nam in 2007.JAPAN POOL VIA JIJI PRESS / AFP - Getty Images

It's likely that Kim at experienced pinpointed pupils, a runny nose, and nausea, before finding it hard to breathe and feeling his heart racing.

He probably then had loss of bladder and bowel control, convulsions, seizures, and finally death while on the way to the hospital just minutes later.

There are antidotes, such as the medication Atropine, which the French military were issued with after the Paris attacks because they feared ISIS would attempt to use VX. But this needs to be administered almost immediately to be effective.

"VX acts so quickly that victims would have to be injected with the antidote almost immediately to have a chance at survival," according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bretton-Gordon added that "Kim Jong Nam had absolutely no chance at all."

VX also featured in the 1996 action thriller "The Rock."

Although the symptoms displayed in the movie — the liquid evaporating quickly and burning the skin — are inaccurate, and more closely associated with chlorine.

Why was no one else killed?

This might be down to VX's chemical properties. It doesn't evaporate very quickly, so people have less chance of breathing it into their lungs.

There may have been one other casualty, however: Malaysian officials say that one of the two women who allegedly attacked Kim vomited after the incident.

Furthermore, police say the two women washed their hands straight after. This tallies with guidelines from the U.S. Army, saying that "a solution of common household bleach and water, followed by water rinse, can be used to decontaminate the skin where contact was made with VX."

The airport itself has not been decontaminated and has remained open and at full capacity for more than a week.

Asked by The Associated Press whether officials would sterilize the area following the discovery of VX, Malaysia's Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said: "We are doing it now."

How was VX smuggled into Malaysia?

Assuming the chemical was made in North Korea and not Malaysia itself, getting such a potent substance past security may have been relatively easy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sits with his son, Kim Jong Nam, in a 1981 a family portrait in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il died in 2011.via AFP - Getty Images

Bretton-Gordon explained that when he gives talks about the danger of chemical weapons, he uses a thimble-sized container of honey as a prop to demonstrate how little of the liquid is needed to pose a threat.

"I carry it in my hand luggage all over the world and no one has said anything — why would VX be any different?" he said.

What are the wider implications?

For the past decade, international focus has been on North Korea's ability to deliver a nuclear weapon on a long-range missile — something analysts predict is some way off.

But Kim's assassination may reveal a far more short-term threat: that it could arm a missile with VX and fire it at a city or a military base.

Previously, one thing that's reassured experts about terrorists' ability to use VX is that it's very hard to produce. "It's not something you can knock up in your back shed," according to Bretton-Gordon.

But this also means that the substance used to kill Kim was likely cooked up in a government-level laboratory — another indication that Pyongyang was behind the attack.

"If they were behind this then it means a nation state has taken a weapon of mass destruction into another country and used it," Bretton-Gordon added. "It will be very interesting to see what the international reaction will be."

A police officer checks his phone inside the forensic department at Kuala Lumpur Hospital on Friday.Daniel Chan / AP
Jamieson Lesko contributed.