The murder of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia last month was shocking, but the revelation that he was killed by the most deadly chemical weapon, VX, and this week’s latest rocket launches by North Korea, turns the assassination into an event of potentially huge strategic ramifications.
VX is the deadliest nerve agent and chemical weapon yet produced. A drop the size of a pin head is enough to kill a person. It was developed in the 1950s as a military Weapon of Mass Destruction, but most of its stocks were destroyed under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). However, many experts believe that President Assad’s regime in Syria still have some and that ISIL might have acquired some stock for their own use.
VX is not something that can be homemade and the attack in Malaysia points towards North Korea, which is not a signatory to the CWC, has an active chemical weapons programme. It is likely that the North Korean nuclear programme is still some way from a viable nuclear device which could be ftted to a missile and fired thousands of miles on one. Nevertheless, the idea that North Korea has manufactured VX suggests that they could launch a missile with a viable chemical warhead in short order. This could cause devastation if fired at a mass of unprotected civilians.
In a single act the North Korean regime appear to be saying, ‘We can kill anybody, anywhere in the world with chemical weapons, so, International Community, time to sit up and listen’ . It says North Korea is in the WMD club is a world player and expects to be treated as such.
The failure of the international community to enforce the ‘Redline’ of using chemical weapons by the Assad Regime in Syria, has in part led to this attack. Many despots and terror organisations now see the use of chemical weapons is ‘in play’ with no likely punitive actions. The psychological terror effects of these weapons has made a significant difference in the fight in Syria and Iraq. Use of chlorine barrel bombs in East Aleppo in December 2016, forcing women and children out of underground shelters and into the open, where they were slaughtered, was a major factor in breaking the siege of Aleppo by Assad.
The effectiveness of chemical weapons has not gone unnoticed by ISIL either, who now use them regularly in the defence of Mosul and other strategic towns in Iraq and Syria. Some analysts believe they too have VX.
ISIL have attacked the Peshmerga Forces (who I advise) in Northern Iraq over 20 times in the last 12 months with chlorine and mustard agent (gas). I witnessed one such attack at Gwer near Mosul in April last year. The commanding general told me ‘we can hide from bombs and bullets but not gas’. Similarly, in Syria, ISIL have used mustard agent to attack moderate rebel positions. In Aug 15 they fired mustard shells into the village of Marea north of Aleppo.
It now appears likely the North Korean chemical weapon programme may be in advance of its nuclear programme. They have tested 4 ballistic missiles this week which can reach Japan. I gauge they could probably fit a warhead to these missile, today, with around 500KGs of VX – enough to kill many thousands. Given this, it is absolutely essential that we do not see a re-run of the debacle over the Syrian ‘Redline’, where the International Community acquiesced and this crime against humanity went unpunished. The UNSC must very forcibly demand that North Korea signs the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantle its chemical weapons programme, and we must be prepared to use force if the Regime shows any sign of trying to use VX as a WMD.
President Trump has, in his own inimitable fashion, declared that he would not have allowed the redline issue in Syria to develop as it did. This is the first chance for him to show his mettle and back up rhetoric with plausible and demonstrative action.
Hamish De Bretton Gordon OBE is a former commander of NATO’s CBRN Regiment.