Kim Jong Nam's death: Killer substance behind attack still a mystery

Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in a Kuala Lumpur airport on Monday (Feb 13).
PHOTO: Reuters

The substance that ended the life of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the half- brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, remains as much a mystery as the motivations behind the killing.

A police officer was quoted as saying that the poison used at a Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday morning, believed to be a liquid, was "more potent than cyanide".

But Ms Lim Chin Chin, senior consultant forensic scientist with The Forensic Experts Group in Singapore, said it is too early to speculate what substance it was without further clues - such as its appearance or smell, how the victim was exposed and the victim's symptoms.

"There are many substances that can kill if used in the wrong amounts," she said.

Read also: 2 women suspected of killing Kim Jong Nam may be dead: Report

Some well-known and potent poisons include arsenic, which has been used for centuries by people on their enemies, and sodium cyanide, which is used in illegal cyanide fishing.

Sodium cyanide is an example of an "easy" poison because it is soluble in water and only a small amount is needed, said Ms Lim.

Read also: Kim Jong-nam: The unfortunate crown prince's downfall

There is also sarin, which killed or injured scores of people in the Tokyo subway in a domestic terror attack in 1995.

These poisons can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.

"A lot of these chemicals are controlled items in Singapore... But in other cities in Asia, some of them are quite easily available," said Ms Lim.

The Kim dynasty: North Korea's secretive rulers

  • Following a successful missile test and the murder of his half-brother in Kuala Lumpur, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has been thrust back into the headlines. Here's a look at the hermit state's ruling dynasty.
  • Known as "The Eternal President", Kim Il Sung established the North Korean dictatorship after World War II. With the help of the Soviets who installed him, he purged political enemies and laid the foundations for the regime we see today.
  • Kim Il Sung had three children; Kim Man Il, Kim Kyung Hee and his successor Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il ran the country after his father's death in 1994.
  • State media announced the death of "The Dear Leader" on December 19, 2011. He is thought to have had at least four female partners.
  • Kim Jong Il had an affair with actress Song Hye-rim, before marrying his first wife Kim Yong Suk (not pictured). The pair had a son, Kim Jong-nam.
  • Kim Jong-nam was raised in secrecy and tipped to take the North Korean crown after his father's death, but fell out of favor after being caught trying to travel to Disneyland. He was allegedly murdered in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 13, 2017.
  • Another one of Kim Jong Il's lovers. Ko Yong Hui was working as a dancer before becoming his partner and bore him two sons and a daughter. One of the sons is Kim Jong-Un, the country's current leader. She died in 2004.
  • The supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), lLittle is known for sure about Kim Jong Un. Even his birth date is uncertain but he is believed to be around 33 years old.
  • Before taking power, he had barely been seen in public, and many of the activities of both Kim and his government remain shrouded in secrecy.
  • The oldest son of Kim Jong Il but passed over for the top job by his younger brother Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Chul was initially seen as the successor but a book written by a chef to the family suggested he was viewed as too soft for the job.
  • Mystery also surrounds Kim Yo Chong, the younger sister of Kim Yong Un. Born in 1987, she reportedly attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland.
  • The International Business Times reported that in October 2014 she possibly took over state duties for her brother while he underwent medical treatment.

Read also: One of Kim Jong-nam's assassins arrested: Malaysian police

Under Singapore's Poisons Act, more than 1,000 substances are listed as poisons, while more are listed as hazardous substances under the country's Environmental Protection and Management Act.

Others, such as sarin, are listed as chemical weapons under the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which Singapore ratified in 1997.

Read also: N Korean leader tried to kill half-brother for 5 years: Intelligence agency

Past poisonings suspected to have been politically motivated include that of former Russian Federal Security Service agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006.

And back in 1896, Sultan Sheikh Hamad bin Thuwaini of Zanzibar died from suspected poisoning by his cousin Khalid bin Barghash, who proclaimed himself sultan, setting off a war with the British.

This article was first published on Feb 16, 2017.
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