The world is going through a period of chaos and rapid changes. The international security environment is graver than ever since the end of the Cold War. Global challenges including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, refugees, climate change and pandemics, are coming simultaneously, not to mention a host of regional tensions. Most importantly, the rules-based international order is under threat in an unprecedented manner. North Korea possesses not only nuclear capability but also intends to actually use its nukes. Its fast-growing WMDs and missile capabilities, including chemical weapons, have become the gravest threat to the international peace and security.
In the post-Iraq War world, the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has become the centre of global attention. For more than a decade, the debate on this issue remained confined mostly to the realm of nuclear weapons. The perception that WMDs are not for actual use but for deterrence broadly continues to hold in the post-Cold War period too. However, it is also a fact that certain categories of WMDs, like chemical weapons, have been used during the Cold War. In today’s world, the Syrian conflict and the alleged use of chemical weapons to kill the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Malaysia continues to shine a spotlight on the dangers of the use of such weapons.
In the post-9/11 scenario, it was professed that the major threat in the realm of WMDs could emerge mainly from the international terror groups. The use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013, however, dealt a blow to this thinking. It was confirmed by the United Nations that these weapons were used at Ghouta near Damascus, killing nearly 2000 civilians. President Obama had asserted in 2012 that any possible use of chemical weapons would amount to crossing a ‘red line’ which would invite a US military response. The military intervention by the US forces in Syria did happen a few months after the use of these weapons by the Syrian forces (or by rebel forces as claimed by the Assad regime). Chemical weapons were also used as the bargaining tools in the West Asian geopolitical theatre. One of the reasons for Libya to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by declaring its weapons stockpile during 2004 was Gaddafi’s desperation to normalise relations with the West.
North Korea has blatantly breached the ‘red line’ in a very peculiar manner in the latest incident. Kim Jong-nam – the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – was killed on February 13 at Kuala Lumpur airport while he was waiting to catch a flight. Two women wiped a substance on his face leading to his death within 20 minutes. It has been found that the substance used for this killing was a nerve agent called VX. This agent is considered one of the most potent chemicals and is 100 times more lethal than sarine, the nerve agent that was used to kill and injure several thousand civilians at the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. Just a few grams of VX is sufficient for mass killing. It affects the nervous system and disturbs the functioning of human muscles eventually leading to death. This substance is derived from organophosphate pesticides and its lethal dose ranges from about 10 milligrams via skin contact to 25-30 milligrams, if inhaled. This substance has been classified by the UN as a WMD. North Korea is reported to have not just grams but thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons including VX all over the country.
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