Must-watch: video showing murder of Kim Jong Nam

February 22, 2017, 1:25 pm

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Extraordinary security footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia showing details surrounding the February 13 killing by poison of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. The video was posted by Fuji Television and the Wall Street Journal, and can be seen by clicking here.

The video makes it possible to establish a rough time-line. Kim Jong Nam is seen walking through the air terminal.  Although the attack itself takes place in the distance and is difficult to see clearly, it appears that at least one woman comes up behind him, swipes her hands over his face, and walk away with her hands held away from her body. Police later said she had been trained to do that, and to wash her hands immediately afterwards.

Kim can then walks up to security guards to report the incident, apparently telling them that he felt dizzy. They escort him to an airport medical clinic. After arriving, he was described as having a seizure and losing consciousness. He was taken to hospital but could not be resuscitated.

Extrapolating from the video, it looks like the poison was a liquid absorbed through the skin with an onset from exposure to severe toxicity of approximately 10-15 minutes. Discussion on toxicology discussion boards have brought up the following possibilities:

  • Tetramine: Tetramethylenedisulfotetramine (TETS) is a rat poison that has been banned since 1984 but which — according to Wikipedia — is still used in China. It is a white powder that is slightly soluble both in water and DMSO, a solvent that could accelerate dermal absorption. TETS is a neurotoxin that acts as a GABA antagonist causing refractory status epileptics, coma, and death. There is no specific antidote.
  • Aconite: This plant poison is used in several Chinese herbal medicines.Aconite is a sodium channel opener, causing gastrointestinal symptoms, perioral paresthesias, bradycardia, and cardiac arrhythmias. Onset after ingestion is reported to be 10 – 20 minutes. Scientific literature indicates that aconite can be absorbed through the skin.
  • TTX: Tetrodotoxin — a neurotoxin found most famously in pufferfish (fugu) — is a sodium channel blocker. Prominent manifestations of toxicity include perioral paresthesias, paralysis, and respiratory failure — none of which were reported in association with Kim’s death. Also, the time course from exposure to death is longer than 15 minutes, even after ingestion.
  • Cyanide: Considered somewhat unlikely, since the onset of severe toxicity would be expected to occur sooner than is evident in this case.
  • DNP: Dinitrophenol — a mitochondrial poison that uncouples oxidative phosphorylation — has been used as a pesticide as well as a diet aid. It can be absorbed through the skin, but usually presents with severe diaphoresis and GI symptoms, which were not apparent in this case.

Several people have been arrested in this case, and others are being sought. Apparently, the police no longer believe the story offered by two women suspects who claimed they believed they were taking part in a harmless television prank. Recent news reports indicate that there was a break-in attempt at the morgue where Kim’s body is being held.

7 Comments:

  1. Joe K Says:

    The fact that the attack was likely carried out by two women who were both themselves unharmed suggests the use of a binary chemical weapon to me, or perhaps the use of substances that are only toxic in combination. An organophosphate would be a resonably match to the time until symptoms and death.

    The alternatives I can think of would be the use of 1) a substance whose vapour is very toxic by inhalation but harmless by skin contact, not even causing an easily recognisible rash etc., or 2) a substance that the women were issued antidotes to, consumed either beforehand or when they went to wash their hands. But I can’t think of any toxic substance or antidote that is also consistent with the time to death or the lack of apparent side effects from the antidote.

  2. Leon Gussow Says:

    joe:

    Thank you for the comments. I think an organophosphate is a possibility, but I doubt it was a binary weapon– that would just seem too complicated, and the woman who swiped Kim’s face would have had the final weapon on her hands. Not clear if she was wearing gloves, but she apparently quickly deconned her hands in a lavatory.

    I agree a poison that vaporized would fit the scenario. A chemical agent like sarin would, I think, be too dangerous and definitely affect the attackers and bystanders.

  3. James Says:

    What about strychnine? Possible absorption thru eyes and mucous membrane? To me, it looks like he is already having trouble walking by the time he is walking to the clinic.

  4. Leon Gussow Says:

    james:

    Good thought. Strychnine is absorbed through the skin. I’m not sure that it would take effect so quickly unless it was carried by a solvent such as DMSO. Also, no report of jaw stiffness, but the details available are extremely limited.

  5. Grigory Says:

    I think its hard to tell from the video whether the attacker used any PPE. She could very well have been wearing a glove, so I wouldn’t make too much of the fact that she was apparently not affected.

    Also, since Vfib arrests are sometimes confused with seizures, I wouldn’t make too much of the report of “seizure” either.

    It seems the only things we can be reasonably certain of are:

    1) time of onset (10-15 minutes)

    2) route of administration (skin/mucous membrane absorption, but possibly inhalation)

  6. Gilbert S Says:

    And the winner is????? VX agent according to an article on the NY Times. Scary stuff.

  7. Leon Gussow Says:

    Gregory:

    I agree with all your points. Despite the announcement by Malaysian authorities that they identified the nerve agent VX in samples taken from Mr. Kim’s face, I think questions still remain about what actually killed him.

    Gilbert:

    Scary stuff indeed. But the video of Mr. Kim after exposure does not seem to me to convincingly support VX, especially the evident lack of copious secretions.

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