'Assassins': What is VX nerve agent? Here's why the deadly poison did not kill Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong

The poison has been used in other international incidents and one of the two women involved in the death of Kim Jong-nam also suffered from symptoms of poisoning

                            'Assassins': What is VX nerve agent? Here's why the deadly poison did not kill Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong
Image for representational purposes only (Getty Images)

In February 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the former favored heir to the North Korean rule, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia by two women who thought they were taking part in a Japanese prank show. The women — Siti Aisyah from Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam — had been tricked by North Korean agents who posed as Japanese TV producers into "filming" for at least a month before the assassination, before turning on Kim Jong-nam who was reportedly in Malaysia to meet with a CIA agent. The assassination is the subject of Ryan White's latest documentary, 'Assassins'.

Siti and Doan were both told by North Korean agents posing as Japanese TV producers to play pranks on unsuspecting strangers. The most common prank involved the women walking up to strangers from behind and closing their eyes with their palms, which were often covered in lotion or baby oil. Unbeknownst to them, when they pulled the "prank" on Kim Jong-nam, the baby oil covering their hands was laced with the deadly VX nerve agent. 

VX (short for "Venomous Agent X") is a yellowish, odorless and tasteless liquid that disrupts the body's nervous system to a lethal effect. Just 10 milligrams is enough to kill a person through skin contact, though it can also kill through inhalation. The poison was first discovered in England during the early 1950s based on research done by Gerhard Schrader, a chemist working for a German pharmaceutical conglomerate in the 1930s. The compound had been outlawed internationally under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Symptoms of exposure to the VX agent include but are not limited to abnormally low or high blood pressure, chest tightness, headache, nausea, breathing difficulties, and more. Even slight exposure can cause discomfort or sickness. 

The VX nerve agent has been used in other instances throughout history. In the 1980s, Cuba deployed the agents against Angolan insurgents during the Angolan Civil War according to an inquiry by the United Nations. The VX agent was also reportedly used in combination with other chemical agents by Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rule against the Kurds in the Halabja chemical attack in 1988.

In December 1994 and January 1995, the agent was synthesized by Masami Tsuchiya, who belonged to a Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, and used to attack three people. Two people were injured and one 28-year-old man died, the first-ever documented victim of the VX nerve agent at the time. The victim, Shoko Asahara, was suspected of being a spy. 

So, how were Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong able to handle the VX nerve agent without danger to themselves? According to reports, one of them suffered its effects and was vomiting. In the documentary 'Assassins', viewers can notice from CCTV footage that the women were holding their baby oil-covered hands away from their faces. It is likely that only a small amount was used, and because the skin on the palms is thick, it did not penetrate their bodies much. However, for Kim Jong-nam, since the women had pressed their palms against his eyes, the nerve agent had a more direct entry into his body, resulting in his death.

'Assassins' will release in theaters and on virtual cinema on December 11, 2020.

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