Two women accused of fatally poisoning the estranged half brother of North Korea’s ruler pleaded not guilty as their trial began Monday in Malaysia’s High Court, nearly eight months after the brazen airport assassination that sparked a diplomatic standoff.
In a case with a thousand plot twists, there has been but one constant in the murder investigation of Kim Jong Nam: Nothing is ever what it seems. The two women accused of killing the playboy half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be hired dupes, paid a few dollars to perform what they thought was a reality-TV stunt. Stranger still was the murder weapon, liquid VX, a toxin so powerful that a few drops rubbed onto the skin killed the victim in minutes, yet it failed to harm the two women who applied the poison with their bare hands.
Some of the mysteries behind Kim Jong Nam’s death inside a Malaysian airport terminal will likely never be resolved. But U.S. and Asian officials have a clearer view of the attack’s significance. In carrying out history’s first state-sponsored VX assassination in a country 3,000 miles from its borders, North Korea has demonstrated a new willingness to use its formidable arsenal of deadly toxins and poisons to kill or intimidate enemies on foreign soil, analysts say.
Kim Jong Nam’s killing now looks to many experts like a proving exercise for a weapons system — in this case, a robust chemical-weapons stockpile that Pyongyang is thought to have built over decades and kept carefully under wraps.
A State Department report in 2001 found that North Korea was “already self-sufficient” in making all the necessary precursors for sarin and VX, as well as older weapons such as mustard gas. Drawing from an array of sources — from North Korean defectors and spies to satellite photos and electronic eavesdropping — U.S. agencies calculated the size of the country’s chemical stockpile at between 2,500 and 5,000 tons. That’s far larger than Syria’s arsenal at its peak, and larger than any known to exist in the world, except for those built by the Soviet and U.S. militaries during the Cold War.