What Kim Jong-nam’s Atropine Really Tells Us

by Stephen Bryen

Republished from Asia Times

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 Kim Jong-nam 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 a heart attack victim 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 he was preparing himself against that threat.

Kim Jong-nam was killed by the nerve agent VX.  VX 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 and well as by Russia.  It was used in the battle of the al-Faw peninsula (where atropine was also used by the Iraqi side as an antidote), on the Kurdish village of Halabja by Saddam Hussein along with other chemicals including blistering agents (variants of mustard gas) where it killed thousands and caused 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 carted off one of the Nazi Sarin factories and started producing the agent in Russia.  There are allegations, still not proven that the Nazis had used Sarin against Soviet forces on Russian territory.  The Nazis refrained from using Sarin, Soman and other chemical agents such as mustard gas against the 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.

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 our liquids and atropine pills as an effective counter to nerve agents because these means of therapy work too slowly.  The best administration is through intramuscular injection.

U.S. troops today are equipped in areas where nerve gas threats are likely with a device called an autoinjector, essentially a syringe in a cylindrical container that automatically activates when it is thrust against a thigh or buttocks muscle.  The most popular of these is called Autopen®.  They are widely prescribed as a means of insulin injection for diabetics, but they also are 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 are combined into a single injector. Another related therapy in an Autopen-like injector is CANA, a diazepam (Valium) injector. In Israel atropine autoinjectors form part of the civil defense kit issued to all Israeli citizens.

Autopen2 Injector

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.

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 in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  Clearly the two young assassins were given very good intelligence 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 also may 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 while at the same time North Korea’s intelligence apparatus is 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, one hopes we have learned the lessons and are operating aggressively against the North Korean regime.