Last night, Malaysian police revealed that Kim Jong-nam’s killers murdered him with VX, the deadliest of the nerve agents. I had hypothesized before that the killers almost certainly acted on orders from His Porcine Majesty. Saddam Hussein’s suspected possession of stockpiles of VX was at the core of our justification for invading Iraq. This time, the case doesn’t rely on grainy satellite photos or shadowy, unnamed sources. (And this time, an invasion is also the wrong answer to the problem; the right answer is a combination of financial constriction, the use of diplomacy to isolate Pyongyang, and political subversion, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Here, in no particular sequence, are some assorted thoughts on what we’ve learned since yesterday, and what could happen next.
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The next time someone tells you that human rights are a side issue or a distraction from more important issues, please punch that person in the nose.
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The revelation that North Korea used VX has caused justifiable outrage in Malaysia and around the world. There were many Malaysians studying accounting, finance, and agriculture where I attended law school. All of them impressed me deeply with their maturity, wisdom, and strict moral values. I was most recently reminded of this when Kenneth Sng, a student from Singapore (which is culturally similar to Malaysia and separated from it at the end of British colonial rule) gave the introduction at a Republican debate last October.
As a student, I formed close friendships with some of the Malaysians. This is a conservative society that takes law, public order, public safety, and integrity very seriously. That attitude isn’t just a function of the state’s authoritarianism or a remnant of the British legal tradition, the common ancestor of our own legal system. It is a necessity for keeping the peace in a society with a history of ethnic and religious conflict. As Sumisha Naidu documents on her Twitter feed (keep scrolling), this has caused public outrage and protests in Malaysia. Members of a youth group delivered a protest letter to the North Korean embassy. There’s now a safety scare about the use of the terminal. It’s hard to believe that this incident will pass without serious damage to the relationship between North Korea and Malaysia. It could end with the deportation of a large number of slave laborers and money launderers.
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How did the North Koreans get the VX into Malaysia? Judging by reports that the police (1) arrested a North Korean chemist and (2) later found a stockpile of chemicals in a condo, I’d guess they produced it locally. The other possibility being discussed is that they smuggled it in a diplomatic pouch, though this seems less likely to me.
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Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about the legal standard for putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time you read this, I’ll be at work, so I’d refer any questions to my long-form report, or this post, which predicted that North Korea would go back on the list sometime between Groundhog Day and Memorial Day. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened before 5 p.m. today. In the latter post, I noted that the criteria in Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act are so loose that Donald Trump could re-designate North Korea with a retweet. So, hold my beer and watch this!
HEY @realDonaldTrump, Pls RT: “North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” MAGA!
— Joshua Stanton (@freekorea_us) February 12, 2017
Both Congress and the South Koreans are becoming increasingly vocal in calling for a redesignation of North Korea. So would a redesignation do anything? Yes, it would, as I explained here, mainly by invoking the financial transaction licensing requirements in 31 C.F.R. Part 596, which are far stricter than those in the North Korea Sanctions Regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 510. It would also lift North Korea’s sovereign immunity from civil liability for terrorist acts. Granted, the passage of the NKSPEA preempted some of the consequences of a re-listing, but we couldn’t get all of them done at once. Any policymakers looking for tougher options should start with Ted Cruz’s letter to Steve Mnuchin. If that’s still not enough for you, e-mail me.
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For days, theories swirled that the poison was anthrax, which made no sense to me, given that anthrax has an incubation period of at least a day. You will note (because I can’t help reminding you) that in Wednesday’s post, I correctly predicted that the poison would probably turn out to be some kind of nerve agent. I derived this from the fact that the poison was applied to, and absorbed through, the victim’s skin, and the symptoms that followed: blurred vision, eye pain, headache, seizures, and death within minutes. (My long-term memory being better than my short-term memory, I recalled most of these symptoms from my Army years as the soldier’s cue to administer atropine.) All of the nerve agents have similar symptoms, so I didn’t venture a guess as to which one was used.
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The CDC classifies VX as a persistent chemical agent. It takes several days to break down, and even one droplet can kill. To use such a deadly chemical in an airport terminal crowded with civilians — with babies and little children who crawl on floors and put their mouths on armrests, with young mothers who rolled their suitcases into the restrooms the assassins used — is breathtakingly contemptuous of human life and public safety in a friendly nation. It would not surprise me at all if reports began to emerge that other people who traveled through that terminal and touched contaminated sinks, handrails, or furniture also experienced symptoms of exposure.
There are reports that the two attackers slimed Kim Jong-nam with their bare hands. Why didn’t that kill them, too? According to the CDC, “any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal.” (Emphasis mine.) At least one of the women did wash her hands immediately after the attack.
Malaysian police said one of the women also “suffered [the] effects” of VX exposure and was vomiting after the attack. Initial reports said that one of the women wore a glove, but the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield says that isn’t so. Because VX can be a binary compound formed by mixing two separately inert chemicals, it’s also possible that each of the two women applied one of those chemicals.
Another possibility is that the North Koreans who plotted and coolly observed all of this from a nearby restaurant may well have assumed (and preferred) that the poison would kill them. The North Koreans made careful preparations for the escape of their own men, and no apparent plans for the escape of the two women.
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Maybe the North Koreans were sure they wouldn’t get caught. For whatever reason, they seemingly gave no attention to concocting a plausible cover story. The attack itself went off without a hitch, but because it was needlessly and hopelessly elaborate, the getaway fell apart. By using a persistent chemical agent, they also raised the risk that that police would identify the agent, the composition of which suggests more sophistication than a non-state actor would ordinarily possess. The North Koreans aren’t very good at judging foreign reaction to their outrages. Perhaps history has taught them that the reaction will always be a lot of words amounting to nothing. Perhaps His Porcine Majesty’s advisors are afraid to caution him or tell him no. Still, I can’t imagine they expected their plot to be exposed as quickly and publicly as it was.