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Banned Nerve Agent Killed Kim Jong Nam Within 20 Minutes, Malaysia Says

Members of Malaysia's hazardous materials team conduct a decontamination operation at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday.
Manan Vatsyayana
AFP/Getty Images
Members of Malaysia's hazardous materials team conduct a decontamination operation at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday.

The nerve agent smeared onto the face of Kim Jong Nam, estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un, was administered in such a high dose it killed him within 20 minutes, according Malaysia's health minister.

"The doses were so high and it did it so fast and all over the body, so it would have affected his heart, it would have affected his lungs, it would have affected everything," Subramaniam Sathasivam said at a news conference Sunday.

Since Kim Jong Nam's death at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, speculation has swirled that the eldest Kim brother, who was exiled more than a decade ago, was assassinated by the North Korean government — a charge North Korea has denied. Suspicions were only stoked further with last week's revelation by Malaysian police that the poison used to kill him was VX nerve agent, which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned by the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

North Korea is not a signatory to the treaty, though, and NPR's Elise Hu reports the country is believed to have stockpiles of the chemical, along with up to 5,000 tons of various other agents.

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explains what makes the rare VX nerve agent so dangerous:

"VX is among the deadliest chemical weapons ever devised. A colorless, odorless liquid, similar in consistency to motor oil, it kills in tiny quantities that can be absorbed through the skin. A relative of the nerve agent Sarin, VX disrupts communications between nerves and muscles. Victims of VX initially experience nausea and dizziness. Without an antidote, the chemical eventually paralyzes the diaphragm, causing suffocation."

Sathasivam said Sunday that VX requires only a 10-milligram dose to be lethal, and that he believes the dose applied to Kim's face was much more than that. The hospital's autopsy result revealed Kim suffered "very serious paralysis" before his death, the health minister said.

He added that it may be that not even an antidote, had it been administered in time, would have saved Kim.

Elise notes that Malaysia, one of the few countries that has remained friendly with North Korea, may be reevaluating its relationship with the hermit kingdom in the wake of the high-profile poisoning. "Malaysia's tourism minister says he no longer sees any gains from maintaining diplomatic relations with Pyongyang," Elise reports.

On Sunday, authorities in hazardous-materials suits swept the airport terminal where the apparent attack was carried out. After the two-hour sweep, a police official said the terminal is "free from any form of contamination of hazardous material" and declared it a "safe zone," according to The Associated Press.

Among the suspects in the apparent killing is a North Korean diplomat, along with at least four other people. The two women who appear to accost Kim in closed-circuit footage of the incident have both asserted they believed they were part of a prank show.

Citing Indonesia's deputy ambassador to Malaysia, the AP says that one of the suspects, an Indonesian woman named Siti Aisyah, claims she was paid the equivalent of $90 to take part.

Malaysia's police chief has dismissed the claim, saying the two women were "trained to swab the deceased's face."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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