Kim Jong-Un delivers a statement in Pyongyang in September 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump Administration Says North Korea Used VX to Kill Kim Jong-un’s Half Brother

March 7, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

The Trump administration has announced new sanctions against North Korea after concluding that the country ordered the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-nam was attacked in a Malaysian airport in February 2017 when two women approached him and smeared his face with VX nerve agent. VX, one of the most lethal chemical weapons in existence, is banned under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. At the time of the attack, Kim was carrying the antidote to the nerve agent that killed him, as well as $124,000 in cash.

North Korea’s alleged role in Kim Jong-nam’s death has long been suspected by officials in the West. In announcing the new sanctions on Tuesday, the State Department said it had determined in late February that North Korea used the chemical agent to assassinate Kim. North Korea had already been subject to sanctions by both the U.S. and the United Nations. The new sanctions place additional restrictions on things like U.S. foreign aid and financial assistance.

“The United States strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons to conduct an assassination,” Nauert said. “This public display of contempt for universal norms against chemical weapons use further demonstrates the reckless nature of North Korea and underscores that we cannot afford to tolerate a North Korean WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program of any kind.”

The new sanctions come at a delicate moment in discussions over the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Shortly before the State Department made its announcement, envoys from South Korea reported that Kim Jong-un was willing to suspend all nuclear and missile tests while negotiating with the U.S. to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Until this point, North Korea had rejected committing to denuclearization as a precondition for talks. President Trump responded in a tweet, saying “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea.”

North Korea has long denied any involvement in Kim Jong-un’s death and has never been officially accused by Malaysian officials. Last month, North Korea accused Malaysian investigators of trying to “frame” Pyongyang for the assassination, saying that Malaysia was acting under the influence of South Korea.

But there had been previous assassination attempts against Kim, who was traveling back to his home in the Chinese territory of Macau at the time of his death. He had been living in exile after falling out of favor with his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for making comments that were critical of the North Korean regime.

“According to some decent intelligence sourcing, there was a standing order as of 2011 or 2012 to take out undesired members of the ruling family. And so this is when people in North Korea’s intelligence services get a little creative,” said Michael Madden, director of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary North Korea’s Deadly Dictator. “Kim Jong-nam was living on borrowed time.”

The two women who carried out the attack, Siti Aisyah, 25, of Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, 29, of Vietnam, are currently on trial for murder in Malaysia and could face the death penalty if convicted. They have both pleaded not guilty and say they were tricked into thinking they were playing a prank for a hidden camera show on YouTube.

Gooi Soon Seng, a lawyer representing Aisyah, has said that the women had been working as escorts when they were recruited and promised at least $100 to participate in the prank.

But prosecutors accuse them of conspiring with four North Koreans who fled Malaysia on the day of the murder and hold that the women knew they were handling poison. Kim died in an ambulance shortly after the attack.

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case by April or early May, the Associated Press reported last month. If a judge finds a case against the women, the trial could continue for several more months. If not, the women would be freed.

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