Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was killed February 13 when two women smeared a liquid that Malaysian authorities say is VX nerve agent on his face at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong have been charged with murder, a crime that carries with it the death penalty. The two women say they thought they were participating in a televised prank.
But how does this attack in Kuala Lumpur compare with other North Korean moves to consolidate power?
“The use of deadly force or the use of violence to purge any challengers or potential challengers, that’s not new,” said Daniel Pinkston, Lecturer on International Relations at Troy University in Seoul, South Korea. “But the new element in this is, of course, the VX [nerve agent], if the reports are true, and I have no reason to disbelieve the report. So that is a brand new development.”
Stratfor Vice President of Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker observed, “Certainly the way in which they carried out this assassination using VX [nerve agent] is different than what we’ve seen in the recent past.”
Baker recalled an incident in which North Korea tried to eliminate the South Korean Cabinet in Myanmar. "So they’ve done extreme things, but this is certainly something very different than what we’ve seen,” he said.
Seriousness of VX use
So how serious of an issue is it for the international community that a state like North Korea would use a substance like VX nerve agent in a public space?
Baker says that when examining the assassination method, the attack suggests the VX nerve agent was put together during the assassination.
"So it just wasn’t the general release of VX in the space. So in that sense, we could say that this was very targeted in the application and didn’t have a major ripple effect to the airport or to other people in the airport ... or apparently even significantly to the two individuals who engaged in the assassination,” said Baker.
He continues to say the attack itself is a clear signal North Korea not only is willing to use substances like VX, but do so far from home.
Pinkston reiterates that VX is an extremely deadly substance.
“Only a single drop of it, if it were to get on your skin, will kill you,” said Pinkston. “Anyone who would introduce that substance into a public area, in the international airport, I think it’s extremely brazen and completely unacceptable, and crosses a red line that’s beyond the acceptable international norms.”
North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and test ballistic missiles, despite several international sanctions put in place and condemnation by the U.N. Security Council.
How might the international community respond in this instance?
“I think that North Korea must pay a very high price for this, and to not to impose serious costs upon North Korea, I believe, would invite further and more brazen transgressions, and I think it would be the wrong signal to send to North Korea that they could engage in this type of behavior with impunity,” said Pinkston.
He recommends that a “menu of options” be made available to the international community, including banning all of their aircraft from international airports, placing greater sanctions on individuals and entities, placing North Korea once more on the list of state-terrorism sponsors, and a proportional use of force directed at chemical weapons facilities.
In Washington, United States lawmakers have called for North Korea to be listed once more as a sponsor of state terrorism.
Baker adds that a question often asked about North Korea is, “What more can be done?” He says that boils down to basically three action items: negotiate with North Korea, further isolate Pyongyang, or carry out some sort of military action.
“There’s a growing change of view, for example in China, and the debate in China is growing stronger over whether the risk of a destabilized North Korea is still a greater risk than an uncontrolled North Korea pursuing these weapons and carrying out these actions. That would be the most significant change, if it occurs. And China is the one country, I think, that could really alter the balance,” said Baker.
Furthermore, he says that as the United States completes its review of North Korean policy, one can’t rule out that military options won’t be included in the review.