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Tom Clonan: Nerve, blood and choking agents sending state-sponsored message of terror

VX is a weapon of incredible cruelty and terror, writes security expert Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

MALAYSIAN AUTHORITIES HAVE stated that Kim Jong-Nam – brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – was killed by a deadly chemical weapon known as VX nerve agent.

This is a highly significant claim as it implies that a state actor – such as North Korea – was involved in Jong-Nam’s murder.  VX nerve agent is designated a weapon of mass destruction under the 1997 and 2005 Chemical Weapons Conventions.  If its use in Malaysia is linked to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, tensions in the region may escalate.

VX is a highly toxic nerve agent that was developed from the nerve gas Sarin – first developed by German scientists in the 1930s.  The original nerve agents developed by the Nazis, such as Tabun, Soman and Sarin gases, were highly unstable and tended to evaporate rapidly – thus limiting their effectiveness as a battlefield weapon.  They were classified as ‘Type G’ nerve agents.

VX nerve agent is a ‘Type V’ variant that was developed to be more stable in its liquid and aerosol form – with an oily base designed to make it a more persistent and lethal contaminant.  Even one tiny droplet on the skin would prove fatal to a fit and healthy adult.

It is believed that Kim Jong-Nam’s attackers may have smeared his face with approximately 10 milligrams of the chemical agent.  His female assailants may have applied a combination of pre-cursor and chemical agent in quick succession to deliver the fatal dose.

South Korea Malaysia North Korea A TV screen shows pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his older brother Kim Jong Nam. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Kim Jong-Nam would have suffered an incredibly painful and cruel death by such methods.  In the instant the VX liquid was rubbed on his face, Jong-Nam would have smelled a strong odour of fish or rotten eggs.  He would have inhaled particles of the agent and other traces would have entered his system in his saliva and via the liquids and tear ducts in his eyes.

This transmission would have taken seconds.  On contact, VX immediately attacks the human enzyme cholinesterase and begins to shut down the body’s neuromuscular functions.  In stark medical terms, this leads to rapid paralysis of the respiratory centre leading to respiratory failure and death.  The symptoms are terrifying.

Kim Jong-Nam, after inhaling the VX liquid would have immediately experienced muscle cramps, followed rapidly by excruciatingly painful tremors throughout his main muscle groups – in his torso, neck, arms and legs.

His body would have produced a massive amount of saliva – causing him to appear to foam at the mouth, with liquid running from his nose.  He would also have begun to sweat very heavily and also to defecate uncontrollably.  Victims also wet themselves as their lungs fill with broncho-secretions.

Thousands of targets

VX is a weapon of incredible cruelty and terror.

In reality, it would have been relatively easy to assassinate a target such as Jong-Nam using far simpler methods.  With the resources of a state – the range of low-tech methods that might be employed to kill someone are almost endless.  Thousands of targets such as Jong-Nam have met their end by way of a single gunshot wound or an explosive device – even by drone killing.

When the assassin wishes to send a more sinister message to the victim and his family and supporters – more intimate methods are selected – for example strangulation, garroting or beheading, in order to inflict a wider psychological, sectarian or political injury.  Such methods – of which we have become sadly familiar of late – represent terrorism and state terrorism in a bestial, but latterly routine format.

The use of a weapon of mass destruction to kill Jong-Nam takes psychological warfare and terror to a different level – with the possibility of regional and global consequences.

According to international law, treaties and conventions, weapons of mass destruction come under the headings of chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear agents.  Whilst biological agents – such as anthrax and ricin – have been implicated in a small number of attacks since the beginning of the so-called Global War on Terror, there has been a worrying increase in the incidence and frequency of chemical attacks.

Choking agents – such as chlorine and possibly phosgene attacks – have been documented in recent incidents in the war in Syria.  Saddam Hussein stockpiled large amounts of chemical agents and used a combination of such weapons against the Kurds in the notorious assault on Halabja in Northern Iraq in 1988.  In that attack, approximately 5000 men, women and children were killed by a variety of agents including the type of nerve agent that killed Jong-Nam.

Blood agents 

In addition, Saddam used blood agents – such as Hydrogen Cyanide – in liquid and aerosol form in that attack.  On contact with the skin, such agents interfere with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen in the blood stream.  Victims – many of whom were infants and small children – literally drowned in their own blood as their lungs filled and their respiratory systems collapsed.  Death in such circumstances is equally cruel with incredibly painful and traumatic hypoxic convulsions preceeding coma and death.

Agents of the Russian State are known to have used a radioactive weapon – namely Polonium 210 – to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.  In this case, the former FSB (KGB) agent was murdered when a dose of approximately 10 micrograms of Polonium 210 was placed by his assassins in a pot of tea he consumed at the Millenium Hotel in London on 1 November 2006.  It took Litvinenko three weeks to die – a lingering, cruel and painful death.

Litvinenko’s assassination – like that of Jong-Nam – was carried out using a weapon of mass destruction that bore the hallmarks of an action sanctioned at the highest levels of state.  Both assassinations were also incredibly calculated, cruel and bestial – designed to send a very strong political and state sponsored message of terror.

In the case of Litvinenko, it is believed that Vladimir Putin may well have sanctioned his killing in order to consolidate his power base in Moscow and to deter further dissent from former state operatives and their oligarch backers.

In the case of Jong-Nam – it is not entirely clear as yet as to who the perpetrators are.  The circumstances clearly point at Kim Jong-Un’s involvement.  If so, this occurs at a very febrile time in world relations – with President Trump clearly signaling an intention to take military action if North Korea persists in developing its missile and nuclear capabilities.  It would not be the first time in recent history that the presence of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were cited as a cause for declaring a unilateral and catastrophic regional war – such as the invasion of Iraq.  As the song goes, ‘there may be trouble ahead’.

Tom Clonan: Heavy bombers dropping ‘full payload’ have horrific effects on those below >

Also: Isis sows seeds of inter-ethnic conflict to give its perverted ideology some sort of twisted logic >

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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