It’s a story that reeks of a spy novel thriller, and a cheesy one that. An exiled half brother to a despotic rogue ruler is in a Far East airport when two women rub a liquid on his face. Less than half an hour later he is dead, apparently from VX nerve agent. Adding to the surreal bizarreness of the incident, one of the women upon being caught claims she thought she was involved in a pranking TV game show. Four men believed involved appear to escape back to the homeland, presumably to hero status.
Well eat your heart out cheesy spy thriller lovers, this really did happen to Kim Jong Nam, the half brother to flat haired North Korean loony-tune leader Kim Jong Un. Nam was once considered a rival to Un to become the eventual North Korean leader before being caught trying to use a fake passport so he could get into the Tokyo Disneyland (cause the story just isn’t weird enough without weirder background). In the 21st century the cloak and dagger have been replaced by deadly nerve agents and radioactive polonium laced tea.
VX is the nerve agent, not so realistically portrayed, in the 1996 Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage film The Rock. It is very deadly and even small amounts can kill a person. It’s much weaker cousin, Sarin, was used in the 1995 Tokyo Subway attacks that killed 12 and injured dozens.
Here, in very basic terms, is how it works (boring science stuff alert). We all remember from High School biology the fundamental structure of our nervous system composed of nerve cells with dendrites reaching out to connect with other nerve cells. The gap between dendrites is called the synapse. To communicate one nerve cell fires and sends the message to another. It crosses the synapse through conducting chemical called a neurotransmitter. There are many neurotransmitters, but one of the most common (particularly for nerves associated with muscles) is acetylcholine. When acetycholine is released into the synapse and the charge to the next neuron is conveyed.
But that release of acetylcholine is like flipping a switch on. If not turned off the on-switch will continue to carry the neurological current. It needs to be turned off once the “message” is conveyed. So another chemical, called acetylcholinesterase is released (triggered by the presence of acetylcholine). Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that breaks down the acetylcholine, breaking the connection and turning the neuron connecting switch back to off.
Nerve agents, like both VX and Sarin, work as “acetylcholinesterase inhibitors.” They latch on to the acetycholinesterase release sites, disabling them and blocking the release of this enzyme. Acetylcholine remains in the synapse and the switch remains on, uncontrollably carrying the charge continuously. Constantly stimulated muscles cause the victim to begin to twitch with increasing violence. The twitching can advance to spasms called the “dying cockroach” because many of the most effective insecticides are also very low dose acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. Soon the effect reaches the diaphragm, interfering with breathing, and the heart, killing the victim.
So how was this stuff used to kill Nam and if it is so deadly why didn’t it effect anyone else, particularly the two women who smeared it on his face? The most likely explanation is that a “binary munition” was used. Agents like VX are challenging to use because such small amounts are deadly those handling it risk a leak that could kill them. One solution, used previously in American artillery shells prior to banning by treaty, is to have two less toxic chemicals that combine to form VX. They are only brought together moments before firing the chemical round, or even after firing while it is in flight.
So the two women could have each had a less toxic substance on their hands that combined to become deadly VX only when combined with each other on Nam’s face. Why use two women in separate attacks unless this was the point? From there it could be absorbed through his skin, eyes, or just inhaled in small droplets. Once sufficiently dosed he is a goner unless treated very, very quickly with things not found in most emergency rooms and I a betting never found in airport infirmaries.
But what about the second woman who smeared it on him, wouldn’t she have gotten the deadly combo? Malaysian authorities say her story of thinking it was baby oil is contradicted by videos showing her leaving the area with her hands up and away from her face. She likely quickly found a restroom to wash the poison off, or perhaps she wore gloves, not very visible in the fuzzy security camera videos, that she quickly removed. Likewise, the medical staff who treated Nam at the airport probably wore gloves, protecting them.
North Korea just used one of the most deadly chemical agents known to man, in middle of an incredibly busy foreign airport, to assassinate a harmless man who was nothing more than an irritant to the leader of the country. Think about that and what it means for trying to deal with this country and its unbalanced leader. If Kim Jong Un will use the most deadly of internationally banned chemical weapons so whimsically and recklessly, what does that say about his potential to use his nuclear arsenal? Our President, who has his own stability issues, has a major challenge before him.