In Brief
  • Kim Jong-nam, the brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was assassinated using a nerve agent known as VX.
  • The agent's lethality is a clear indicator of why chemical weapons should be heavily monitored and regulated by the international community.

The VX Scare

On February 13th, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was hospitalized after being attacked at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. Kim Jong-nam was confronted by two female suspects that sprayed a chemical in his face. Later that day, he was pronounced dead.

After analyzing the chemical that was used in the attack, it was found to be a nerve agent called VX. The U.N. has classified it as a weapon of mass destruction. Seoul’s foreign ministry acknowledges its strict ban, regardless of reason or place.

So what exactly is VX nerve agent and what considers it to be a weapon of mass destruction?

A nerve agent directly affects the nervous system of someone, inhibiting their muscle’s ability to function properly. Those who come in contact with a nerve agent face seizures and extreme muscle tension with the inability to relax. Other symptoms include blurred vision, rapid breathing, watery eyes, and diarrhea. Depending on the amount the person comes in contact with (primarily through inhalation), the person could stop breathing altogether.

Normally, VX is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It’s slightly oily and doesn’t evaporate quickly. VX can be delivered in “binary form,” in which two harmless compounds can be combined to create the lethal concoction. This method is what was believed to have been used against Kim Jong-nam.

Credit: Chuck Robinson/Associated Press

VX was created in the 1950s in pesticide research but was later found to be much too dangerous. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention describes it as being the most potent out of all nerve agents. It’s lethal when it comes in contact with skin unless washed off immediately and thoroughly.

VX was created in the 1950s in pesticide research, but was later found to be much too dangerous. Since its creation, it’s never been used in combat but has been used in unrelated incidents against civilians. Large stockpiles of the nerve agent were previously found in the U.S. but were removed after the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Antidote

Most of the ingredients used in making the VX nerve agent are easy to come by, such as sulfur. Along with the proper equipment, it’s not that difficult to create.

For those that make the substance, a single drop on their skin could place their life at risk. The only antidote that’s known to succeed in counteracting the effects of VX is a drug called ‘Atropine.’

In 2013 when citizens in Damascus were hit by Sarin, another lethal nerve agent, they fled to nearby hospitals where they were given Atropine.

You might know what Atropine through a procedure you may have undergone during an eye test. Ophthalmologists use it to dilate pupils to check. It can also be used to dry nasal and tear-duct secretions.

With the amount of VX nerve agent that King Jong-nam came in contact with, along with the time it took him to arrive at the hospital, perhaps the Atropine antidote wouldn’t have worked. But in protecting ourselves from the possibility of future chemical warfare, it’s always important to know how to protect ourselves from the possibility.

While this incident was clearly a planned assassination, the ease in which it can be used to kill shows the importance of heavily regulating theses substances. The ease in which dangerous chemicals can be weaponized should be a great concern to all of us. While international agreements and regulations may a hindrance for terrorists, it is important that they not be used militarily as well.