On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was assassinated in an airport with the nerve agent VX. Although the availability of chemical and biological agents is drastically different due to the weapon-specific nature of chemical agents and inherently dual-use character of biological agents, the murder of Kim Jong-nam highlights the wide spectrum of risk and liability that companies and individuals now face.
Before we go further, let’s talk about a nerve agent and the specifics of VX. A nerve agent is a group of organo-phosphorus compounds that affect the nervous system. They can be absorbed through the skin or through respiration and are highly toxic and stable. Many nerve agents use binary technology, where two non-toxic compounds are mixed together immediately before use to form the agent, which minimizes risks associated with handling and transporting toxic agents. VX is the most lethal nerve agent; symptoms occur within 20-30 minutes of skin exposure. Antidotes, normally delivered through auto-injectors, can be effective, but must be administered immediately. VX is considered a weapon of mass destruction and is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but North Korea, who is thought to be responsible for the assassination, is not a party to the CWC.
Threats from biological agents
Biological agents, such as ricin, have also been used in assassinations, including the execution of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, killed in London in 1987. More recently, in 2013, a Texas woman mailed letters containing ricin to President Obama and New York City Mayor Bloomberg. These events demonstrate that individuals with the will and the right access can use biological agents for nefarious purposes. They also highlight the need to secure dangerous pathogens.
The killing of Kim Jong-nam draws interest from a number of security fronts. To the biosecurity community, it is a stark reminder that something physically small can wreak much havoc and deal death to those in its wake. Although VX is a chemical agent, we have only to look at the Markov incident as a reminder that biological agents, too, can be disseminated in a similar, calculated, covert manner as a means of eliminating an adversary. For those working in laboratories with pathogens, the Kim Jong-nam incident affirms that in light of the good which the scientific community does with its research, the vile intentions of one individual necessitate the institution of tailored security programs. This is to address the low-probability, high-consequence nature of a biological incident.
Impact on executive protection
From an executive protection perspective, the Kim case recalls the ever-present need for ongoing assessment and planning. Several points should be noted with respect to Kim Jong-nam. He was a high-profile individual who had been previously targeted for assassination. He was also accessible and visible. Had a comprehensive executive security program been in place which included protective intelligence, advance planning, surveillance detection and close protection, perhaps an assailant would have had much greater difficulty in directly accessing Kim’s routines. Properly designed, this program could have possibly identified signs of surveillance likely present during the planning of his murder and through orchestrated protective operations the team could have reduced the risk of exposure. A security professional wants to make it as difficult as possible for an adversary to reach a principal/protectee. We utilize security in depth and make a would-be assassin jump through as many hoops as possible until they redirect their attention elsewhere or until the security team evades them and brings the client to safety.
We repeatedly insist on planning and rigorous assessment because the presence of a security specialist in a security program typically increases effectiveness. Unfortunately, as subject matter experts, close protection professionals and security consultants, we routinely encounter resistance to building appropriate programs. Concerns for budget and/or inconvenience or lack of faith in the threat assessment capabilities of their advisors many times results in principles deciding on a level of risk tolerance that doesn’t match the guidance offered. It is incumbent upon the industry to evolve, improve the sophistication of our assessments and work diligently to protect the lives of those in need. We are there to protect and this means insistence on our part with appropriate recommendations which mitigate vulnerabilities to a level of acceptable risk.
About the authors
Justin Taylor, Ph.D. is the Director of Biosecurity for AT-RISK International. He is a biosecurity expert with extensive experience in biological research in containment laboratories.
Daniel Sebastianelli is the Deputy Director of Biosecurity for AT-RISK International. He is a biosecurity subject matter expert, Virginia-registered Personal Protection Specialist and Private Investigator.