The following article is based on informed speculation. If North Korea was behind the murder in Malaysia of Kim Jung Nam and if the weapon used to kill him was the nerve agent VX then most of the reasoning and suggestions are accurate and factual, and this article should be taken seriously.
The news now coming from Malaysia is, to anyone with a smattering of military training or interest in chemical weapons, truly terrifying. The murder, in a public airport, of Kim Jong Nam by assailants who may have wiped or sprayed him with the nerve agent VX (or a derivative) may be a world first – the first time Weapons of Mass Destruction have been deployed to murder an “enemy of the state” in a foreign country1. This would be a terrorist act of the first order2, even if arranged by a foreign power. To many it would also be a Casus Belli!
But the immediate implications to our national security are huge. If such a weapon was used in Malaysia, what is to stop it being used in or against the US? What is to stop it being used on US territory or even the mainland US? What can our security personnel do to protect us?
As importantly, in the event such an attack does occur in a US jurisdiction, what action should our first responders be trained to take? What risks do they take if they come into contact with a victim and what steps can they safely and reasonably take to provide the best aid and care to a potential victim?
These are vital and urgent questions which, even now, I am confident our government is studying and investigating. But the threat has suddenly escalated into a whole new realm and as such, perhaps one of the first duties they need to conduct is to inform all those potentially at risk (security personnel and first responders in particular, but more broadly the entire4 US population) of the risks, possibilities and actions to take to reduce the risks.
Avoiding panic is key, and In the same way as the message of “Run, Hide or Fight” is an excellent message for dealing with potential mass attacks which has been migrated into the public consciousness, there needs to be a similar message for dealing with a chemical attack. In which vein I humbly offer “Move away, strip off, wash off and communicate!”
Chemical Weapons have been classified as Weapons of Mass Destruction (along with Biological and Nuclear weapons) for very good reasons. Most ordinary people, including the vast majority of journalists, have simple no concept of just how deadly CW such as VX are. The technical difficulties in producing it are not massive, but safe production, transport and storage are nearly impossible except at great expense, with well thought out policies and procedures and, at all times, enormous care.
CDC has excellent information available on their website at: https://www.emergency.cdc.gov/agent/vx/basics/facts.asp including detailed actions to take on suspected contamination. But their suggested actions can be summarized as “Move away, strip off, wash off and communicate!”
Suffice to say the amount of VX required to kill a single human being is so minute as to be almost incomprehensible. The median lethal dose for humans is estimated at 10 milligrams (in liquid form, less than a single drop) and it can be absorbed through the skin as well as through the eyes or mouth. The exact lethal dose depends on numerous circumstances, but its effects are cumulative, so the longer one is exposed, say through fumes coming off clothing, the more likely any exposure at all is to be fatal.
The death of Kim Jong Nam, elder brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, is a wake up call to us all. The US should investigate rigorously, demand full access to all Malaysian details and publicize such details as are appropriate. These would certainly include a full public disclosure of how they believe the agent was delivered, what effects were found on collateral contacts such as the assassins, the first responders and passers-by and whether residue was found elsewhere, and if also in what qualities and how was it treated.
The assassins took a terrible risk to deliver the murder weapon. Almost certainly they had no idea exactly what they were handling and were unlikely to have taken appropriate precautions in transport and handling. It is also unlikely the Malaysian authorities dealt with the aftermath in a fully safe way. There is very likely to be at least small doses of VX agent waiting in ambush for unwary innocents, but small is a relative term, and many hundreds, if not thousands, must be at some risk. Where and how did the assassins store and prepare their weapon? What happened to the containers, protective equipment and gloves they must have used? What happened to Kim Jung Nam’s clothes? Were any first responders affected? Have they been warned and examined in detail? Were any members of the public affected or contaminated? Are there any areas of contamination still remaining in the airport (such as bathrooms and garbage facilities)? Are there any possible areas of contamination still unchecked such as garbage dumps? What transport did the assassins use and was it contaminated?
All of the above, and much more, need to be discovered and discussed by a panel of experts who can then produce both a strategy for moving forward, actions (such as training) to be implemented as soon as possible and decisions required urgently for efficient and effective defense against and response to this move by North Korea.
1. Although chemical weapons have been deployed by tyrannies such as Iraq and Syria against their own populations, confirmed use against targets in other nations is believed to be unique (there are also unconfirmed reports that Saddam may have used VX against Iran in the 1980’s).The Japanese terrorist attacks using Sarin in 1994 and 1995 and VX also in 1995 were solely domestic terrorism.
2. Make no mistake, this a terrorist attack, aimed at causing fear across the world-wide community. The use of WMD to kill Kim Jong Nam is a message to every other nation: “Beware, we can deploy WMD anywhere, at any time”.
Tim Wilson is a retired British Army Lt Col, a Consultant, a recent and proud immigrant citizen of these United States of America and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.