Malaysia Airport Safe After Nerve Agent Killed Kim Jong Nam

  • Death probably happened 15 to 20 minutes after incident
  • Indonesian, Vietnamese suspects believed attack was a prank

Malaysian authorities have declared Kuala Lumpur International Airport safe after a sweep of the terminal found no traces of a potent nerve agent used to kill Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader.

The airport is “a safe place” and is free from any contamination by hazardous materials, state news agency Bernama reported Selangor state police chief Abdul Samah Mat as saying. A sweep by Malaysia’s police forensic department, a hazardous materials team from the fire and rescue department, and the Atomic Energy Licensing Board. The operation was conducted between 1:45 a.m. and 3 a.m. Sunday, the police chief said.

Fears of contamination were triggered after a preliminary report showed that the VX nerve agent was used in the murder of Kim Jong Nam. The substance, listed as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention Act 2005, was found on the victim’s face and eyes, Malaysian police said Friday. The eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died at the airport on Feb. 13.

“Confirmation from the chemistry department is consistent with the autopsy findings from the Ministry of Health, suggesting it was a chemical agent which caused very serious paralysis that led to the death of the person in such a very short period of time,” Health Minister S. Subramaniam said Sunday at the airport. 

Quick Death

Kim Jon Nam died within 15 or 20 minutes of being poisoned, an indication of how high the dosage was, the minister said, according to the Associated Press. “It would have affected his heart, it would have affected his lungs, it would have affected everything.”

Exposure to the chemical in high doses can lead to death “very quickly,” while in low doses the side effects can last for a few days, Subramaniam said, adding that the chemical in its powdered or liquid form can vaporize into the air. Aside from a suspect who was involved in the chemical attack, there were no reports of anyone else experiencing side effects, he said.

This is the first time VX nerve agent has been found in Malaysia, Bernama reported, citing Deputy Health Minister Hilmi Yahaya. The substance is difficult to detect if brought into the country in small quantities, he said Sunday.

Police have arrested four people linked to the murder, including two women who are believed to have carried out the attack, and are seeking four North Koreans whom they believe fled to Pyongyang on the day Kim Jong Nam was killed. Authorities also want to question a diplomat at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, an employee at Air Koryo, North Korea’s state-owned airline, and a North Korean who has lived in Malaysia for three years.

$90 Prank

Malaysia will issue an arrest warrant if the diplomat doesn’t cooperate, police said Saturday. Abdul Samah, the police chief leading the investigation, said authorities will allow a “reasonable” time for the diplomat to come forward, before issuing a notice compelling him to do so, according to AP.

On Saturday, Indonesia’s deputy ambassador to Malaysia, Andriano Erwin, said an Indonesian female suspect in custody was paid $90 to help carry out the attack in what she thought was a prank. Carrying an Indonesian passport in the name of Siti Aishah, 25, she was identified from closed-circuit television footage taken at the airport and was alone at the time of her arrest.

“According to her, that person gave her around 400 ringgit to do this activity,” Erwin said in a video recording published by Indonesian news portal detik.com.

Siti Aisyah didn’t know she was handling poison and thought the liquid given to her was baby oil, Erwin said after meeting her at a police station Saturday, according to the New Straits Times. 

Comedy Video

The second suspect, Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, told representatives of Vietnam’s embassy in Malaysia on Saturday that she was duped into believing she was participating in a comedy video, according to a statement posted on Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Police have yet to formally determine the identity of the deceased, whose travel document named him as Kim Chol. They expect his next-of-kin to come to Malaysia in a day or two to identify and claim the body, Bernama reported.

“Our next issue is to confirm the identity of the deceased -- for that we need the next-of-kin. In the absence of it, we need some information that we can co-relate with whatever data that we have,” Subramaniam said.

Kim Jong Nam’s death has raised questions about the stability of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime as he accelerates plans to build nuclear weapons that threaten the U.S., South Korea and Japan. South Korean government officials have speculated that Kim Jong Un was behind the killing of his half-brother, a critic of his leadership who had lived outside the country for years.

‘Most Brutal Means’

Former CIA Director John Brennan said the assassination shows that Kim Jong Un continues to use lethal means to silence opponents.

“The use of this VX against his half-brother -- certainly, all indicators point to North Korean responsibility for this -- it is another example of his use of these types of toxins to carry out his objectives,” Brennan said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “He’s killed many, many individuals in some of the most brutal means possible.”

North Korea is among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the U.S. and Russia, according to a 2011 assessment by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. A 2010 white paper by South Korea’s defense ministry estimated that North Korea had between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents.

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