TSG IntelBrief: A Bold Move by North Korea
February 28, 2017

A Bold Move by North Korea

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The details surrounding the February 13 assassination of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, demonstrate the increasing audacity of Pyongyang.

• Malaysian officials stated that a VX nerve agent was used to kill Kim Jong Nam inside the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

• Even for North Korea, the use of VX—a weapon of mass destruction—at an airport within one of the few countries that has decent relations with Pyongyang is unprecedented.

• Putting aside its nuclear capabilities, North Korea’s demonstrated willingness to seriously violate international norms and laws changes the nature of the unconventional threat posed by the country.

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Reports by Malaysian officials that a VX nerve agent was used in the February 13 assassination of Kim Jong Nam—the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—generate several significant security implications. The use of a chemical weapon of mass destruction inside a busy airport, however precise and limited the target may have been, is an escalation of the threat posed by Pyongyang that requires a thoughtful and unified response. North Korea has demonstrated its willingness to violate nearly every norm of international law, and its arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons makes it increasingly unfeasible for the international community to treat its actions as mere bluster.

The murder was caught on security cameras inside the Kuala Lumpur International Airport; three people have been arrested, and a number of North Korean operatives have been identified as suspects. Two women were seen on the film rubbing Kim Jong Nam’s face; they claim to be unwitting pawns in a prank—a defense Malaysian officials have dismissed. The level of VX used was many times the lethal dose and killed Kim Jong Nam in less than 20 minutes. Malaysian officials are looking for several North Korean nationals who left the country immediately after the murder. 

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has shown no reluctance to kill family members and officials who displease him; there have been reports this week that he had five senior North Korean security officials executed with anti-aircraft guns. Still, the murder of a son of the previous supreme leader, Kim Jong Il—however estranged from his half-brother—is a remarkable crime given that the family has been deified.

It is not publicly known how the VX nerve agent was smuggled into Malaysia. Given the small size and amount of the chemical weapon, it is possible that North Korea could have used its diplomatic pouch privileges, or smuggled it via an airline employee or other traveler. It is the combination of North Korea’s ability to utilize a privilege guaranteed by international law—the diplomatic pouch—and the public use of a weapon banned by international law—VX nerve agent—that makes North Korea such a unique threat. While there is debate within foreign policy circles as to whether North Korea qualifies as a rational actor, its actions have long devolved from frustrating antics to serious conventional and unconventional threats.

It is unclear what the international response to this crime will be; North Korea has proven resistant to sanctions or diplomatic pressure. In response to Pyongyang’s January launch of a ballistic missile—another banned action—China announced it would stop importing coal from North Korea for one year. This is a serious response by China, and it might bring North Korea closer to adherence with international law. Nonetheless, a public assassination in an international airport using a chemical weapon demonstrates the audacious nature of the threat posed by North Korea, and warrants serious international consideration as to the appropriate response.

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