KUALA LUMPUR: ANY doubts cast by North Korea on the findings of Malaysian investigators that Kim Jong-nam was killed by the nerve agent VX can now be quashed.
While there is logic behind Pyongyang’s argument that his two assailants would have died had they held the chemical with their bare hands for a considerable time while waiting to pounce on Jong-nam at klia2 on Feb 13, what the New Straits Times’ Special Probes Team uncovered convincingly kills this supposition.
VX was indeed the chemical that sapped Jong-nam’s life, but the team learnt that investigators probing this high-profile murder are now focused on establishing that the deadly substance was delivered in a binary chemical attack.
This means that the attack on Jong-nam using the lethal chemical involved a mix of two concoctions which, on their own, are not potent, but when mixed together, becomes the deadly VX.
Binary VX is referred to as VX2. It is created by mixing O-(2-diisopropylaminoethyl) O’-ethyl methylphosphonite (referred to as Agent QL) with elemental sulfur (Agent NE).
The Special Probes Team learnt that investigators working on the case may have found evidence on at least one item Jong-nam had on him during the attack suggesting the presence of the QL precursor agent.
It has not been established if they had also found traces of sulfur that would have been combined and reacted with QL to form the VX nerve agent.
In a recent media interview, California-based chemical weapons expert Raymond A. Zilinskas, when asked why those who administered VX to Jong-nam were not affected by it, said what was used could not possibly be VX in its pure form, as there would be no doubt that the assassins themselves would have been killed (in the attack).
“What we have is what is called a binary system... where the assassins had two types of chemicals. These chemicals, on their own, are not that toxic, but when you put them together, the chemical reaction ends up as VX. I think that’s what happened here.”
A source close to the ongoing probe suggested that one of Jong-nam’s two assailants could have the QL reagent, and the other, “probably the sulfur”. Both chemicals would have had to be delivered “with precision” to kill Jong-nam but without affecting others at the crowded airport.
“Only 10ml of the liquid reagent (which is non-toxic) was needed, and it could be carried undetected anywhere, even through an airport scanner.
“Had it not been for the closed-circuit television footage, his death would have probably been attributed to a heart attack.”
The NST also learnt that at least two individuals who had attended to Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as he desperately sought help after the attack noticed a foul smell emanating from him.
“That would be explained by the sulfate as it has a rotten egg odour. It can also induce vomiting,” the source said, adding it had also been established that, while one of the assailants had vomited shortly after the attack, both showed no traces of being poisoned by VX.
VX, in its pure form, is colourless and odourless.
Police had said that the duo had washed their hands at the airport after the attack before making their escape. Experts say immediate countermeasures against VX poisoning include washing the chemical off with bleach. Others include administrating the antidotes atropine and pralidoxime (2-PAM), as well an injected sedative/antiepileptic, such as diazepam.
It was also reported that one of the North Korean suspects wanted by the police was seen pouring something on one of the assailants’ hands shortly before the attack.
“The man would have put himself at risk, too, if he had been handling pure VX,” the source said, adding that VX affects the body through inhalation and skin contact if not washed off