Aviation meets suffocation

THE murder of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, had already seemed outlandish enough. According to the Malaysian authorities, two women in their 20s had stolen up behind him at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13th, smeared some kind of poison on his face and then slipped away into the throng of travellers. Within 20 minutes Mr Kim was dead.

The results of an autopsy, announced ten days later, were more extraordinary still: they showed the poison to be VX, the deadliest nerve agent ever synthesised. That firmly pointed the finger at North Korea’s repressive regime, which is thought to have a vast stockpile of chemical weapons, VX among them. The nerve agent is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention—which North Korea, along with only three other countries, has not signed. Just one litre of the stuff could kill 1m people, such is its potency. Inhaling VX vapour disrupts the nervous system within seconds, causing convulsions and suffocation.

North Korea is not known for its squeamishness: this week the South’s spy agency reported that the North had conducted yet more executions with anti-aircraft guns, shooting five officials to pieces. Yet spreading its nastiest chemical around a foreign airport is brazen even by the North’s standards. (North Korea has not even admitted that the victim was Kim Jong Nam, but has demanded the return of the body without an autopsy and denounced the Malaysian government’s version of events as slander.)

The Malaysian authorities say four North Korean men, who have since fled the country, gave the poison to Siti Aisyah, from Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, from Vietnam; police said they had been instructed to wash their hands immediately after the attack in an airport bathroom. The women, who landed in Malaysia within two days of each other, claim that they had been asked to play a prank for a reality TV show; Ms Siti said she had been paid the equivalent of $90 for the stunt. She had gone out to celebrate her birthday with friends in Kuala Lumpur the night before. Ms Doan is said to have been a failed contestant on a Vietnamese version of Pop Idol, a talent show, before travelling to Malaysia to find work. On March 1st Malaysian prosecutors charged the two with murder.

An attempt was made to break into the morgue where Mr Kim’s body is being kept. The Malaysian authorities have not revealed any details, but they have threatened the North’s ambassador with expulsion if he continues to “spew lies and accusations” about their investigation. The North, in turn, says “the biggest responsibility” for the furore lies with Malaysia, “for letting one of our citizens die”.