The Ramifications Of Using A Chemical Weapon In Kim Jong Nam's Assassination NPR's Scott Simon talks with Georgetown University Asia expert Victor Cha about the global repercussions of the deadly nerve gas attack on Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea's dictator.
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The Ramifications Of Using A Chemical Weapon In Kim Jong Nam's Assassination

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The Ramifications Of Using A Chemical Weapon In Kim Jong Nam's Assassination

The Ramifications Of Using A Chemical Weapon In Kim Jong Nam's Assassination

The Ramifications Of Using A Chemical Weapon In Kim Jong Nam's Assassination

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NPR's Scott Simon talks with Georgetown University Asia expert Victor Cha about the global repercussions of the deadly nerve gas attack on Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea's dictator.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A backchannel meeting between the United States and North Korea scheduled for March in New York City has been canceled after the U.S. withdrew the visa for North Korea's envoy. This follows the assassination of the half-brother of North Korea's leader, apparently by a lethal nerve gas. We are joined now by Victor Cha of Georgetown University.

Thanks very much for being with us.

VICTOR CHA: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: According to The Wall Street Journal, you were supposed to be part of those talks. Can you confirm that?

CHA: Well, there were supposed to be what are called track II talks that were going to take place sometime next month. But those are not going to happen now, I think, largely because of this - the finding that it was this VX nerve agent that was used in this assassination.

SIMON: VX, that's a chemical banned in most countries but in - not in North Korea. So presumably, this can be traced to North Korea.

CHA: Yes. North Korea's one of just a handful of countries that has not signed onto the CWC, the Chemical Weapons Convention. And they have a large stockpile of VX and other chemical weapons that they have as a part of their military hardware.

SIMON: So you can confirm for us, Professor Cha, that there were supposed to be talks between the Trump administration and North Korea. You were going to be in them. But there won't be talks now.

CHA: Well, I wouldn't say they were talks between the North Koreans and the Trump administration...

SIMON: The United States of America.

CHA: Right. Track II is largely academics and experts on the U.S. side, some former U.S. government officials from different administrations. On the North Korean side, reportedly, the head of their delegation would have been a foreign ministry official who is dual-hatted as a think tank person. So that person would have been coming, presumably, in a track - what we call 1.5 capacity.

SIMON: Yeah. Professor, what's there to talk about if North Korea wants nuclear weapons and the U.S. and much of the world don't want them to?

CHA: It's a really good question. I think the - part of the idea is to be able, at least try to get back to some sort of dialogue. We're in a cycle now of North Korean missile tests, this assassination attempt. And on the side of the rest of the world we're in a cycle of sanctioning and U.S.-ROK, U.S.-South Korean military exercises coming up next month. So when all those things are happening, I think most people want at least some sort of dialogue channel open. Otherwise things could escalate pretty quickly. And I think that's mainly the purpose of trying to keep a dialogue channel open.

SIMON: Yeah. But is there anything the world realistically can offer North Korea if they are really intent on getting nuclear weapons and chemical weapons?

CHA: Yeah. You know, it's a great question. I think that the core of the problem is that they say that they pursue these weapons out of insecurity. So the logical thing is can the world provide them some sort of security? And in past agreements that I have participated in, we provided them security guarantees and offered to negotiate a peace treaty with them. The problem is I think the security - insecurity that they feel is generated by the regime itself. You know, these sorts of totalitarian regimes never feel secure. And that's the core problem.

SIMON: Because there's mass starvation. There's mass poverty. There's mass oppression.

CHA: Right. And that they - all those things, and that they don't rule by the consent of the legitimacy of the people. And that's the basic problem.

SIMON: Yeah. China has a role in this?

CHA: Yes. China is both part of the solution, in terms of putting more pressure on North Korea, but they're also part of the problem because they still consider North Korea to be an ally. And they don't want to put so much pressure on the regime that they risk collapsing it. About 85 percent of North Korea's external trade is with China. So if they feel like they put too much pressure on, they could completely destabilize the regime. And that worries them because they don't want a collapsing Korean Peninsula on their border.

SIMON: Victor Cha is director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Thanks so much for being back with us, professor.

CHA: Sure, it's my pleasure.

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Chemical Weapon Found On Body Of North Korean Leader's Half-Brother

Chemical Weapon Found On Body Of North Korean Leader's Half-Brother

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TV screens in Seoul, South Korea, show images Wednesday of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Ahn Young-joon/AP hide caption

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Ahn Young-joon/AP

TV screens in Seoul, South Korea, show images Wednesday of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

Malaysian authorities say initial autopsy results show a chemical weapon — VX nerve agent — was used in the fatal poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, older half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.

VX is an odorless substance that can exist as liquid or gas. It can kill within minutes if it's passed through the skin. It is 10 times more toxic than sarin and classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

Early last week, while Kim Jong Nam was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, two women approached him, touched his face and held a cloth over it. He was able to walk to a help desk, which took him to an airport nurse area, but soon fell severely ill and died before making it to the hospital.

The women who approached him were caught on airport security cameras and captured within days of the attack. They are from Southeast Asian countries and are now in custody. But police believe the plot involved far more people than the two women. Authorities are seeking at least seven North Koreans, including a diplomat, in connection with the crime.

That VX nerve agent is responsible for Kim's death strengthens the claims made by South Korea that the North Korean regime ordered the hit. VX is man-made and not that difficult to produce, according to chemical weapons experts. But it tends to be used by state actors. For example, Saddam Hussein is believed to have used VX nerve agent on Kurdish citizens of Iraq in the 1980s.

South Korea last week blamed North Korea for the killing and called the rather public assassination a terrorist act. North Korean officials in Malaysia, meanwhile, were rejecting the autopsy's results before it was even concluded. And to add to all this drama, someone this week apparently tried to break into the morgue where Kim's body is being held. That incident is under investigation.

The body believed to be that of Kim Jong Nam has yet to be identified by next of kin, so Malaysia is refusing to release the remains. Malaysian authorities have asked the North Koreans to provide a DNA sample from a Kim family member. But North Korea is not cooperating.

The Malaysian police inspector general has been talking with the press this week, but not answering many questions, saying instead that a lot of answers reporters are seeking are "subjects of the investigation." Later he said that the investigation could last years.

Chan Kok Leong contributed to this post, from Kuala Lumpur.