What Killed Kim Jong-nam? — Chromatography Investigates

Mar 10 2017 Read 1215 Times

When news broke that the North Korean leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, had been killed — the footage suggested that some type of poison or chemical agent had been used. Kim Jong-nam reportedly died from a seizure on his way to hospital after an incident at Kuala Lumpur airport.

It is alleged that he was sprayed in the face by an attacker or that two attackers rubbed a liquid on him before walking away and quickly washing their hands. Before long the internet was buzzing with theories and suggestions of what and who had attacked Kim Jong-nam and caused his death.

The evidence so far presented, suggests that it was a substance known as VX that killed Kim Jong-nam. So, let’s take a quick look behind the headlines and find out more about VX and the role chromatography could have played in identifying Kim Jong-nam’s poison of choice.

The evidence so far — hopefully not ‘fake-news’

What is known for certain is that the half-brother of North Korea’s leader died while in Malaysia. It is certain that he was attacked in Kuala Lumpur airport and that he subsequently died. Initial reports suggested he had been poisoned and initially the poison was either sarin or VX. Malaysia’s health minister stated that Kim died a painful death 15 or 20 minutes after the attack with the chemical agent affecting his heart and lungs.

Now, Malaysian authorities have confirmed what killed Kim Jong-nam. Royal Malaysian Police Inspector General Khalid Bakar said that swabs taken from Kim Jong-nam’s face and eye had tested positive for VX nerve agent.

But how the poison got onto the North Koreans face is uncertain. One of the women who is suspected of being involved in the attack did vomit while in police custody.  But considering that it was VX that was used, they seem to have got off lightly. One way that VX could have been used was as a binary compound — with Kim’s attackers each smearing one component which then reacted forming the fatal VX compound.

VX — weapon of mass destruction

VX — O-ethyl S-diisopropylaminomethyl methylphosphonothiolate — is considered one of the most dangerous substances invented by man. It was first synthesized in the 1950s as chemists looked for new pesticides. But the substance was so potent that it was swiftly put to one side. It is now thought that its only use is as a chemical weapon. It is a clear, colourless liquid that is very hard to detect.

It works by penetrating the skin and then it disrupts nerve function — resulting in convulsions, loss of consciousness and finally death. It is thought that VX was used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds. Chromatography is at the forefront in detecting nerve agents. The role of chromatography in forensic toxicology is discussed in the article, A Simplified Mixed-Mode Sample Preparation Strategy for the LC-MS/MS Analysis of Benzodiazepines and Z-Drugs for Forensic Toxicology.

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