Kim Jong-nam’s possession of atropine, and what it means

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It has now emerged from the ongoing trial of Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, the two young women accused of killing Kim Jong-nam – the brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – that he was carrying twelve vials of atropine. For sure, he never got to use them, and in any case apparently lacked the syringes needed for atropine to work effectively against nerve gas poisoning.

Atropine is used in medicine in certain eye treatments and surgeries and for bradycardia, or slow heart conditions. Until 2010 it was used, in combination with other drugs for cardiac resuscitation, to revive heart attack victims, but it was discontinued when little benefit could be found for its use.

Carrying 12 vials of atropine counts as a very large amount of the drug. It tells us that Kim Jong-nam had ample warning that he could be the victim of a nerve gas attack coming from his brother, and that he was preparing himself against that threat.

Kim Jong-nam was killed by the nerve agent VX, which is part of a ‘persistent’ class of nerve agents developed by the Swedish Defense Research Institute and taken up by the UK and the United States. The ‘non-persistent’ nerve agents are known as the G-series and they were primarily developed by Nazi scientists. The most famous of the G-series is Sarin, which today is made by Iran and Syria, as well as by Russia. It was used by Saddam Hussein on the Kurdish village of Halabja in the battle of the al-Faw peninsula (where atropine was also used by the Iraqi side as an antidote), along with other chemicals including blistering agents (variants of mustard gas), killing thousands and causing long-term health problems, including cancers, for the survivors. In Syria it was used against civilian and military targets by the Assad regime, most recently this year at Khan Shaykhun, where it killed over 70 people and sickened many more.

At the end of World War II, the Russians seized one of the Nazi Sarin factories and started producing the agent in Russia. There are allegations, still not proven, that the Nazis used Sarin against Soviet forces on Russian territory. The Nazis refrained from using Sarin, Soman and other chemical agents such as mustard gas against other allied forces, mostly because Nazi troops were not trained tactically on how to use them and lacked chemical protective gear and gas masks. Even more persuasive was that Winston Churchill made it clear that any use of chemical agents by the Nazis would trigger allied attacks on German population centers using anthrax.

Kim Jong-nam arriving at Beijing airport in 2007. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

Kim Jong-nam arriving at Beijing airport in 2007. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

Nerve gas blocks the biological action of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE) in the body, essentially shutting down the nervous system. This stops the action of all the body’s organs and leads to convulsions and death rather quickly. Atropine is designed to counteract the blocking agent.

As an antidote, atropine has to be administered very rapidly and absorbed into the body quickly. This rules out atropine liquids and pills as an effective counter to nerve agents because these means of therapy work too slowly. The best administration is through intramuscular injection.

US troops today are equipped in areas where nerve gas threats are likely with a device called an auto-injector, essentially a syringe in a cylindrical container that automatically activates when it is thrust against a thigh or buttock muscle. The most popular of these is called Autopen. They are widely used as a means of insulin injection for diabetics, but they are also filled with atropine for military use. Usually atropine injectors in the military (known as Mark 1 NAAK) are used along with a second injector filled with pralidoxime chloride, or the two are combined into a single injector. Atropine auto-injectors form part of the civil defense kit issued to all Israeli citizens.

While we don’t know for sure, it would appear that Kim Jong-nam was carrying vials of atropine but not any syringes to administer the drug. If this is true it is possible that he was supplied the nerve agent antidote while he was in Malaysia and was heading back to Macau with the vials.

There is a good case to be made that whoever warned him handed over the atropine and gave him instructions to follow after he returned home

This suggests that Kim Jong-nam was warned in specific terms that his life was in danger, that an attempt would be made to kill him with VX agent and that he needed to be prepared. There is a good case to be made that whoever warned him handed over the atropine and gave him instructions to follow after he returned home. If true, this suggests that neither the atropine’s immediate suppliers nor Kim Jong-nam thought there was any danger in Malaysia or that he would be attacked at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Clearly, the two young assassins were given very good intelligence about where to find Kim Jong-nam and they had no difficulty recognizing him.

There have been rumors that Kim Jong-nam met with western intelligence agents, maybe Americans, during the time he was in Kuala Lumpur. He almost certainly did not get the warning from any Malaysian authorities who, it seems, initially thought that the cause of his death was a heart attack.

But no matter who gave the warning, it suggests a rather well advanced set of connections into the center of Pyongyang’s intelligence apparatus or power structure. How else would such a plot be discovered? Moreover, it may also be that North Korea’s counterintelligence was very active and, sensing the plot might be compromised, acted very quickly before Kim Jong-nam was fully prepared.

Even more interesting (following this admittedly speculative chain) is that the West may have a better handle on Kim Jong-un’s regime than previously believed. At the same time, North Korea’s intelligence apparatus may be more formidable and effective than expected.

The real game in stopping the threats from North Korea is finding a solution to Kim Jong-un’s ambitions before he takes any action that is irreversible and fatal. Given what happened to Kim Jong-nam, it is to be hoped we have learned the lessons and are operating aggressively against the North Korean regime.

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