Kim Jong Un’s half brother Kim Jong Nam was an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency who met more than once with unspecified “agency operatives” before he was killed with VX nerve toxin in a Malaysian airport in February 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday—albeit citing a “person knowledgeable with the matter.”
The Journal wrote that details of the late Kim’s involvement with the CIA “remain unclear,” but it does mention that “former U.S. officials and analysts” believed certain other countries including China may have considered him a potential successor to his half brother.
Beyond that, it doesn’t appear that Kim Jong Nam was the recipient of much confidence in the intelligence community. “Several former U.S. officials” told the Journal that intelligence agencies had deemed the exiled half brother, who lived in Macau, was unlikely to ever rise to power and was unlikely to have any useful information on his brother’s doings (or, say, nuclear program). A former State Department official, Joel Wit, told the Journal he was generally skeptical of the CIA’s ability to develop sources within North Korea:
Joel Wit, a former State Department official and senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank, said the CIA occasionally has had useful sources among North Korean defectors who supplied information on topics like the country’s weapons program and missile exports.
More frequently, he said, “My experience has been that the CIA has repeatedly thought that it had well-placed sources in North Korea, human sources, that really knew what was going on... Those sources have more often than not proved to not know what’s going on.”
The Journal added that its sources also said Kim Jong Nam was likely in contact with Chinese security services.
Kim Jong Nam was at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport as part of a trip to meet with a CIA contact when Vietnamese woman Doan Thi Huong and Indonesian citizen Siti Aisyah smeared VX nerve toxin on his face. (The two women insisted they were unwilling accomplices tricked into believing it was a reality TV prank, and were later released.)
VX is known to be the deadliest nerve agent ever invented; it was most infamously alleged to be one of several chemical weapons used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and was also used for assassinations by Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that launched a separate 1994 attack on the Tokyo subway system using sarin that killed 12 people and injured scores of others. Known in full as O-ethyl S-(2-diisopropylaminoethyl) methylphosphonothiolate, it is a colorless, liquid nerve agent that can be introduced via the skin.
Upon entering the body, it interferes with the function of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—causing the latter chemical to rapidly accumulate in the body. This interferes with the neuromuscular system, causing paralysis and asphyxiation, which usually means death somewhere between a few minutes to hours from contact.
One known antidote is atropine, which can counter the effects on neurotransmitters if administered almost immediately after exposure. It can also be given alongside other drugs like the cholinesterase re-activator pralidoxime and the anti-convulsive drug diazepam. However, the odds of survival are poor and neurobehavioral syndromes have been reported to last for weeks to months in those who survived even mild exposures, according to a 2004 review in JAMA.
According to the New York Times, North Korea is “known to have stockpiled” chemical weapons, and U.S. and South Korean authorities have accused its government of orchestrating the plot. Shortly after the murder, Malaysian police said unknown parties attempted to break into a morgue where Kim Jong Nam’s body was being kept.
For their part, North Korean officials deny any involvement. They also lobbed back accusations a few months later that the U.S. had paid some kind of former... lumberjack... to use “radioactive” and “nano poisonous” substances to wipe out the country’s leadership, so there’s that.
Correction: Aum Shinkrikyo used sarin in the 1994 subway attack; it used VX in assassination attempts. We regret the error.