Updated at 1:30 p.m. ET on 2017-02-24
Kim Jong Nam had traces of a banned potent chemical weapon on his face and in his eyes when he died, Malaysian police said Friday, citing toxicology test results.
The results appeared to confirm widespread speculation that the estranged elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was poisoned by two women who accosted him at a Kuala Lumpur area airport on Feb. 13, smeared liquid on his face and walked away.
In a statement, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said results of preliminary tests at the Department of Chemistry Malaysia “indicate with certainty that the substance involved was Ethyl S-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methyl phosphonothiolate or ‘VX Nerve Agent.’”
The analysis was done on swabs of the victim’s eye mucus and face, Khalid said. “Other exhibits are still being analyzed,” he added.
“The cause of death is that chemical,” the police chief told reporters later on Friday as he prepared to travel to Saudi Arabia for the minor Umrah pilgrimage, adding that a team of experts would inspect the area inside Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, where Kim was fatally attacked, for more traces of the VX and sweep it clean.
Venomous Agent X
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the chemical is a man-made chemical warfare agent that is odorless and tasteless and was developed in the United Kingdom in early 1950s.
“VX is the most potent of all nerve agents. Compared with the nerve agent Sarin (also known as GB), VX is considered to be much more toxic by entry through the skin and somewhat more toxic by inhalation,” the CDC said on its website.
The United Nations classifies VX nerve agent as a chemical weapon of mass destruction and called for its elimination in the Chemical Weapons Convention, a multilateral arms control treaty that went into force 20 years ago.
“It is not something you can get hold of easily. You will need licenses. Even if you are a specialist conducting research, there are strict procedures to follow to get the chemical,” Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, a former toxicologist at University Sains Malaysia, told BenarNews.
“It is very toxic. Just 10 mg is enough to kill a person once the chemical touches the skin. So it must be handled with great care,” he added.
Authorities will investigate how the banned substance was brought into Malaysia, Khalid told reporters separately.
“This chemical weapon is banned. We will investigate how the chemical substance was brought into Malaysia. It will be difficult to detect if brought into the country in small quantities,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted him as saying.
The man whom Malaysian authorities have identified as Kim Jong Nam died while being rushed to hospital after complaining to medical personnel that he felt ill after a woman attacked him with a chemical at KLIA2.
South Korea has blamed North Korea for Kim’s death, citing a “standing order” from Kim Jong Un to kill his older sibling and a failed assassination bid in 2012 after his half-brother criticized the regime.
CCTV footage aired by Fuji TV that went viral on the internet shows two women carrying out the attack. Malaysian authorities arrested two female suspects, whom they identified as an Indonesian and Vietnamese nationals, days later.
In previous statements, Khalid alleged the two women were trained to handle toxins and had practiced at two Kuala Lumpur area shopping malls before carrying out the attack.
One of the two female suspects suffered side-effects after touching the chemical with her hands and was vomiting afterward, the police chief said.
Apart from the two women in custody, Malaysian police are holding a North Korean man, and have identified seven other North Korean suspects, four of whom already left Malaysia.
According to news reports, the North Korean in custody, Ri Jong Chol, holds a doctorate in chemistry. After the police announced that Jong Nam was attacked with VX, authorities raided a Kuala Lumpur in connection with the investigation but no chemicals were found, Reuters reported.
Among the seven North Koreans sought by police is the second secretary at Pyongyang’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Earlier this week, Khalid told a news conference that his department had asked the embassy to hand over this man for questioning along with an employee of North Korea’s state-run airline – both of whom were believed to be in Malaysia.
“However, as of today, we have not received any relevant document from the police or the foreign ministry of Malaysia …,” Kim Yu Song, a consul at the embassy told reporters Friday.
The investigation into Jong Nam’s death has resulted in a diplomatic row between North Korea and Malaysia, because Malaysian officials have refused Pyongyang’s request to hand over the body without a post-mortem, and has insisted that his next-of-kin come forward to claim the remains and give DNA samples.
Malaysia has recalled its ambassador to Pyongyang and the North Korean ambassador has twice publicly criticized Kuala Lumpur over its handling of the case.
“We will wait for the next-of-kin to come,” Khalid said Friday, denying reports that Malaysian police were going to Macau to collect DNA from Jong Nam’s son who lives there.
“We need the next-of-kin to identify the body … and we would like to take the DNA samples from the next-of-kin.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.