Malaysian authorities say initial autopsy results show a chemical weapon — VX nerve agent — was used in the fatal poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, older half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
VX is an odorless substance that can exist as liquid or gas. It can kill within minutes if it's passed through the skin. It is 10 times more toxic than sarin and classified as a weapon of mass destruction.
Early last week, while Kim Jong Nam was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, two women approached him, touched his face and held a cloth over it. He was able to walk to a help desk, which took him to an airport nurse area, but soon fell severely ill and died before making it to the hospital.
The women who approached him were caught on airport security cameras and captured within days of the attack. They are from Southeast Asian countries and are now in custody. But police believe the plot involved far more people than the two women. Authorities are seeking at least seven North Koreans, including a diplomat, in connection with the crime.
That VX nerve agent is responsible for Kim's death strengthens the claims made by South Korea that the North Korean regime ordered the hit. VX is man-made and not that difficult to produce, according to chemical weapons experts. But it tends to be used by state actors. For example, Saddam Hussein is believed to have used VX nerve agent on Kurdish citizens of Iraq in the 1980s.
South Korea last week blamed North Korea for the killing and called the rather public assassination a terrorist act. North Korean officials in Malaysia, meanwhile, were rejecting the autopsy's results before it was even concluded. And to add to all this drama, someone this week apparently tried to break into the morgue where Kim's body is being held. That incident is under investigation.
The body believed to be that of Kim Jong Nam has yet to be identified by next of kin, so Malaysia is refusing to release the remains. Malaysian authorities have asked the North Koreans to provide a DNA sample from a Kim family member. But North Korea is not cooperating.
The Malaysian police inspector general has been talking with the press this week, but not answering many questions, saying instead that a lot of answers reporters are seeking are "subjects of the investigation." Later he said that the investigation could last years.
Chan Kok Leong contributed to this post, from Kuala Lumpur.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And the mystery surrounding the airport killing of the North Korean leader's half brother is getting even more bizarre and even more grim now. Malaysia has announced initial lab results that show a chemical weapon was used in the fatal poisoning. NPR's Elise Hu has been covering this story. She's on the line from Seoul.
Good morning, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So what is the latest here? This sounds really bizarre.
HU: Yes. The big headline this morning is that Malaysian authorities are saying Kim Jong Nam - that's the older half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un - Kim Jong Nam was killed by VX. VX is an odorless nerve agent that can kill within minutes if it's passed through the skin. It's a chemical weapon, an estimated 10 times more toxic than Sarin.
Early last week while Kim Jong Nam was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, two women approached him, appeared to touch his face and then they held a cloth over it. Kim soon fell ill and then he died before he even made it to the hospital. The women are from Southeast Asian countries. They're now in custody, but Malaysian authorities are trying to track down seven more suspects. They are all North Korean.
GREENE: OK. Does that suggest that the theory is true that the North Korean regime was somehow behind this?
HU: Well, that VX nerve agent, which is something the U.N. considers a weapon of mass destruction, is responsible for this death would strengthen that case. VX is man-made. Apparently, it's not that difficult to produce, but it does tend to be used by state actors. For example, Saddam Hussein is believed to have used VX on the Kurds in the 1980s. South Korea, for its part, has already accused North Korea of putting out the order to kill this Kim brother. It has called this assassination a terrorist act.
North Korean officials in Malaysia - they've been trying to stop the autopsy on this body, going so far as to say it would reject any results even before the results came out. And David, to add to all this drama, someone this week apparently tried to break into the morgue where Kim's body is being held. That is under investigation as a separate incident.
GREENE: My goodness. It's just one development after another here. Well, just remind us, Elise, if you can, why this brother is important, why the regime might have wanted to kill him.
HU: Well, many North Korean watchers say that Kim Jong Nam was actually seen as a dynastic successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, but fell out of favor because of his love of leisure. But there's actually very little evidence that this Kim brother was a threat to the regime lately. The Chinese were believed to be protecting him, as he lived in Macau. And there is one theory that China saw him as someone who could step in if the North Korean regime collapsed.
And of course, we can't forget the current leader, Kim Jong Un, does have a track record of purging his potential rivals. Just a few years ago, he had his uncle, who was high up there in North Korean leadership - he was abruptly executed.
GREENE: All right, Elise. We've got a morgue broken into. We've got a weapon of mass destruction potentially used here. What is next?
HU: Well, Malaysia is still holding this body waiting for identification by next of kin. So far, no one in the family has shown up. But the Malaysian police inspector general has been talking to press this week, and he said that this investigation could actually last years.
GREENE: OK. NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul.
HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.