It is fairly easy for well-disciplined and equipped troops, like those of the ROK and the United States, to defend against chemical weapons, but civilians are more difficult to defend unless they are warned in advance of an impending attack and can therefore put on their gas masks and other personal protective equipment.
Although the international community has correctly made ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program a priority, leaving the DPRK with chemical weapons is short-sited given how easily North Korean artillery could lob artillery shells filled with poisonous gases against Seoul and other South Korean cities. A more pressing concern is that might offer chemical weapons or their components and technologies to non-state actors or rogue regimes since North Koreans seem willing to sell anything to anyone for the right price.
The U.S. Army recently announced that it was increasing its chemical weapons defense capabilities in South Korea, including by returning a special WMD decontamination unit to the Peninsula. In addition to defending South Koreans and U.S. soldiers and civilians from a DPRK chemical weapons attack, they might need to intervene in the North should the DPRK regime collapse and, as in Syria and Libya, the specter of non-state actors seizing or selling the chemical weapons to other buyers. An even more gruesome scenario would occur if DPRK leaders, fearing popular unrest, emulated Saddam Hussein in using chemical weapons against its own people.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans countries from using, or threatening to use, chemical agents as weapons. The Convention’s provisions apply universally in terms of time and place. The treaty is of indefinite duration and seeks comprehensive coverage of all activities by both government and private sector actors. The CWC has achieved wide membership, facilitated the destruction of almost all the massive stocks of chemical weapons stockpiled in the 20th century, and contributed to the lack of interstate wars with chemical weapons since the treaty’s entry into force in 1997.
In 2009, India became the third country—after Albania and South Korea—to completely eliminate its chemical weapon stockpiles since the convention entered into force in April 1997. Yet, Syria, North Korea, and other states of proliferation concern have yet to join the convention. As the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which administers the treaty, has pointed out, the CWC will need to evolve from an institution primarily concerned with disarming member states’ existing weapons stockpiles, which will be largely complete within the next few years after Russia and the United States complete their elimination schedules, to an entity that prevents new countries and non-state actors, especially terrorist groups, from acquiring them.