Unconventional Assassinations: Why the Assassination of Kim Jong-nam Has Greater Implications

By: Farnaz Alimehri, Columnist

Photo Credit: New Straits Times

On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was assassinated in a Malaysian airport in Kuala Lumpur.[i] He was attacked by two women, Doan Thi Huoung and Siti Aisyah, who were said to have doused their hands in a toxic liquid, and then sprayed it on the victim’s face. It wasn’t until a few days later that the authorities were able to identify the liquid as VX, a chemical nerve agent.[ii] Kim’s death has a series of implications for the North Korean regime: reciprocal travel bans have been placed by the North Korean and Malaysian governments, upcoming track II talks between the United States and North Korea have been cancelled, and China, North Korea’s most significant ally, is monitoring the situation closely to determine its next course of action.[iii] Beyond these immediate implications, however, Kim’s assassination elucidates an even bigger problem: the continued use and normalization of unconventional weapons.

Assassinations are not commonplace—in fact, norms against assassination have been set in place since the time of the Roman Empire.[iv] However, when assassinations do occur they can have major implications for the international community; after all, it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that propelled the world into war in 1914. In recent years, assassinations have increasingly begun to use more unconventional substances, such as ricin (a deadly biological toxin), polonium-210, and now VX. In 1978, Georgi Markov, was killed by a ricin pellet shot from an umbrella while waiting for a bus in Waterloo.[v] In November 2006, Alexander Litvinenko died from radiation poisoning after polonium-210 had been added to his cup of tea.[vi] Kim Jong-nam’s assassination is the latest example of a growing trend. Prior to Kim’s death, the only known victim of VX was a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in December 1994, purportedly targeted for assassination for spying on the organization.[vii] The increased use of unconventional substances in assassinations is troubling, not only because it further normalizes assassinations, but also because it normalizes the use of unconventional weapons.

Unconventional weapons attacks have a myriad of associated effects that make them of greater concern than conventional weapons; this is especially true if an attack isn’t sophisticatedly coordinated. In the case of Kim Jong-nam, the two individuals involved were said to have practiced their attack in shopping malls.[viii] A troubling thought, but effectively carrying out the attack in a crowded airport seems worse. Many more bystanders could have been affected by this attack had it gone wrong. That is not to say a conventional attack in an airport is a better scenario, but the physical as well as psychological impacts of a chemical weapons attack is great because these weapons have been taboo in our society since the Second World War. Michael Luhan of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons states, “They have become weapons of terror. You put yourself in a neighborhood and suddenly, without knowing anything, without smelling anything, without seeing anything, people’s eyes bug out, they start gasping for breath, hyperventilating, going into convulsions.”[ix] The uncertainty breeds terror far greater than any conventional weapon. And therein lies the appeal of unconventional weapons, they are not easily detected, and when used effectively, they can cultivate fear and have deadly consequences.

The increased use of unconventional weapons, even when applied selectively for purposes of assassination, highlights how powerful these effects could be if used in a larger-scale attack. What if the terrorists involved in the Brussels airport attack had decided to use unconventional weapons, such as a biological or chemical agent, instead of conventional bombs? Though the resulting casualties might have been considerably less, the ensuing fear and terror instilled in the population would have been just as, if not, more effective. Nor are unconventional weapons out of the reach of violent sub-state actors. Twenty years ago, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the deadly nerve agent sarin in the crowded Japanese subway, resulting in the death of 13 people and 6,000 casualties.[x] Cult members spread sarin using plastic bags, which they later punctured with sharpened umbrellas.[xi] Today, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continues to use chemical weapons, allegedly carrying out a chemical attack less than a week ago on the civilian population in Mosul. The ease and success of these attacks begs one to question: how well equipped is the international community in detecting and responding to unconventional attacks? Unconventional weapons are being used more frequently and discretely, and the international community needs to evolve to meet the challenge. We cannot let the use of unconventional weapons be normalized.

[i] Anna Fifield, “For Jim Kong-nam, a Sad Ending to a Lonely Life,” The Washington Post, February 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/the-sad-life-and-even-sadder-end-of-kim-jong-nam/2017/02/24/7fb591fc-f941-11e6-aa1e-5f735ee31334_story.html?utm_term=.5258d9f2de14.

[ii] “Kim Jong-nam: How N Korea Could Have Used Potent VX to Kill,” BBC News, 24 February 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39073837.

[iii] Richard Paddock, “North Korea, Citing Kim Jong-nam Dispute, Blocks Malaysians from Exiting,” The New York Times, 7 March 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/world/asia/kim-jong-nam-north-korea-malaysia-travel-ban.html.

Scott Simon, “The Ramifications of Using a Chemical Weapon in Kim Jong Nam’s Assassination,” NPR, 25 February 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/02/25/517181334/the-ramifications-of-using-a-chemical-weapon-in-kim-jong-nams-assassination.

Anthony Kuhn, “China Monitors Assassination Probe of North Korean Kim Jong Nam,” NPR, 20 February 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/02/20/516203226/china-debates-response-to-the-killing-of-north-korean-kim-jong-nam.

[iv] Ward Thomas, “Norms and Security: The Case of International Assassination,” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 25, no. 1., Summer 2000, 105-133.

[v] Nick Patton Walsh, “Markov’s Umbrella Assassin Revealed,” The Guardian, 5 June 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/06/nickpatonwalsh.

[vi] “Alexander Litvinenko: Profile of a Murdered Russian Spy,” BBC News, 21 January 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-19647226.

[vii] Pamela Zurer. “Japanese cult used VX to slay member”. Chemical and Engineering News. 1998, Vol 76 no. 35, 7

[viii] Richard C. Paddock and Choe Sang-hun, “Kim Jong-nam’s Death: A Geopolitical Whodunit,” The New York Times, 22 February 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/world/asia/kim-jong-nam-assassination-korea-malaysia.html.

[ix] Tom Blackwell, “The Immoral, Silent Killer: Why Chemical Warfare Instills in People a Fear that Conventional Attacks Do Not” National Post, 30 August 2013, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/israel-middle-east/why-chemical-warfare-instills-in-people-a-fear-that-conventional-weapons-do-not.

[x] Tomohiro Osaki, “Deadly Sarin Attack on Tokyo Subway System Recalled 20 Years On,” The Japan Times, 20 March 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/03/20/national/tokyo-marks-20th-anniversary-of-aums-deadly-sarin-attack-on-subway-system/#.WMHiShJ97wd.

[xi] Ibid.

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