VX assassination and ALT+Reality

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam with—according to Malaysian authorities—the nerve agent VX unsurprisingly yielded many press articles, expert commentaries and other opinion pieces. Equally unsurprising is how uninformed several commentators are about the basics of all things chemical warfare. And I am not even referring to the ignorati who characterise VX (or mustard agent, for that matter—courtesy Dan’s unrelenting aspiration to educate the Twitterati) as a gas (it is a liquid with the viscosity of motor oil). It is about not checking basic facts or the accuracy of sources (which may quickly become outdated), as well as copy-and-paste work—particularly from peers or Wikipedia.

VX categorised as a weapon of mass destruction, according to the UN

In popular speech chemical weapons (CW) are easily called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). However, if one thinks of CS tear gas (yes, it should be ‘lachrymatory agent’, because it is a solid) or pepper sprays, then one immediately realises how misleading the term is. The same goes for the use of a poisonous substance, be it VX, ricin, or something less glamorous like rat poison, to assassinate a single individual. Even if the victim has a high body mass, it still does not make the murder weapon a WMD. Anyway, this is an unresolvable, and therefore never-ending discussion about a term certain Western political elites politicised and popularised to justify their invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Yes, WMD later came to stand for ‘weapons of mass delusion’, a proto-reference to ALT+Reality.)

Even so, I became intrigued by the recurring phrase ‘listed / classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations’ in many of the press accounts after Malaysian authorities publicly identified VX as the murder weapon on 24 February. Some articles had an additional, but very specific reference: such characterisation was contained in UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). See for example:

It is true that the first resolution ever adopted by the UN General Assembly, namely ‘Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problem Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy(UNGA Resolution 1(I), 24 January 1946) contained the following provision in the terms of reference of the proposed commission (para. 5 (c)):

For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.

On 12 August 1948, the UN Commission on Conventional Armaments adopted a resolution for consideration by the UN Security Council in which it proposed that its jurisdiction include ‘all armaments and armed forces’ with the exception of atomic weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It further proposed to define WMD

to include atomic explosive weapons, radio active material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.

This, however, was a negative way of defining ‘conventional weapons’ as a residual weapon category so as to serve the commission’s interests. It is by no means a legal definition. No such definition exists, despite the many references to WMD in UN documents and working papers. Consequently, there is no UN classification of WMD, including for lethal chemical agents like VX.

It is worth noting that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not use ‘lethality’ as a criterion for defining a chemical weapon. The United States adopted such a specification in the 1920s in an effort to exempt riot control agents from the prohibition on CW use in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which other states did not accept at the time. It revived the concept in the 1960s and 1970s to avoid characterisation of its widespread use of lachrymatory and anti-plant agents during the Viêt-Nam war as chemical warfare and to retain such military options while Congress was debating ratification of the Geneva Protocol. A final hiccup occurred during the Senate’s ratification of the CWC in 1997. In short, the so-called ‘non-lethal’ lachrymatory and incapacitating agents are part and parcel of the legal definition of a chemical weapon. (Too bad for the WMD aficionados.)

This leaves us with the reference to UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). This document essentially comprises the cease-fire agreement after the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait and the Iraq’s disarmament requirements with regard to biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles. However, it contains no reference whatsoever to VX.

So, where does the quote come from? Given the as good as identical phrasing in different articles (with or without the specific reference to Resolution 687), I would say that writers copied from each other without checking the statement’s foundation in reality. However, somebody did research and then copied and pasted word for word the erroneous sentence from the entry ‘VX (Nerve Agent)’ in Wikipedia (1st paragraph):

As a chemical weapon, it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by the United Nations Resolution 687.

Students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

Saddam Hussein used VX in Halabja in 1988

Another theme recurring in several reports is:

VX, which Malaysian police said was detected on Kim Jong Nam’s eyes and face, was used by Saddam Hussein’s forces in a 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq that killed thousands.

This version is taken from: Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, AP Explains: What chemical weapons N. Korea possesses (24 February). As an Associated Press feed, it got into several major news outlets and papers.

A variant of the assertion appeared in the US magazine Rolling Stone, which almost certainly did not draw on the AP report.

Now, anybody vaguely familiar with the history of chemical warfare knows that nerve agents were used for the first time during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war (sarin and tabun), but also that VX has never been used in combat. In fact, the only time VX was deployed to kill people was when in the mid-1990s the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted to eliminate several of its opponents. One person died; some victims of the attacks survived.

So, where did that come from? As it turns out, the same Wikipedia article (Section ‘Instances of VX use’). Only this time around, the writers misquote the entry, which reads [emphasis added]:

There was evidence of a combination of chemical agents having been used by Iraq against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 under Saddam Hussein. Hussein later testified to UNSCOM that Iraq had researched VX, but had failed to weaponize the agent due to production failure.

The first sentence is referenced with a BBC press report dated 16 March 1988, which was when the first accounts about the chemical bombardment of the Kurdish town came out. The article stated (in a speculative way):

According to experts, the chemicals dropped by the planes may have included mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX and possibly cyanide.

As the BBC explains in a separate comment on the same web page that places the original press item in context: ‘Most of the details about the Halabja killings only emerged a few days later.’ In this instance, the error is not with Wikipedia: despite the entry’s title, it did not assert that the combination of chemicals used in Halabja (which is a correct statement) included VX and it immediately followed up with Iraq’s failure to weaponise VX.

The Rolling Stones writer (whose article includes several errors – check out my comment) tried to avoid the stigma about Wikipedia as a source among academics by directly quoting the BBC piece. Alas …

Again, students get busted for such sloppy investigative work.

North Korea has the world’s third largest CW stockpile

Kim Jong-nam’s murder also led some writers to speculate about the chemical warfare threat posed by North Korea. Based on a South Korean Defence White Paper published in 2014, the general assumption is that the country holds between 3 and 5,000 tonnes of warfare agent. These figures have been around for ages.

However, more surprising is the recurring assertion in national media and by international press agencies that the stockpile is the world’s third largest. In this case, there is somewhat more transparency, as several authors point to a fact sheet on North Korea’s CW capacities prepared by the National Threat Initiative (NTI). However, that fact sheet has not been updated since December 2015. It includes the following judgement in the opening summary:

While assessing CW stockpiles and capabilities are difficult, the DPRK is thought to be among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United States and Russia.

In support of this assertion it cited: North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 161.

So here, the press takes over an easy, catchy quote but fails to understand that the original source is six years old. As if there is no CWC; as if the United States and Russia made no progress in eliminating their respective cold war arsenals.

I can assure you, a student in my course on ‘Armament and Disarmament Dynamics’ who submitted such sloppy investigative work would not have survived (and indeed, some did not).

Moral of the story

Alternative facts are not the privilege of an occupant of one presidential seat. It is a reality we need to address every day, and it is up to each one of use to test for the factual truth time and time again, even (or especially) if it goes against received wisdom or the trending opinion of the day .

(Gosh, did I really have to write that?)