Features | Security | East Asia

North Korea’s Other Weapons Threat

International attention is usually focused on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But Pyongyang’s growing chemical and biological weapons capabilities are worrying Seoul.

J. Berkshire Miller

North Korea’s latent nuclear weapons program is rightfully the main point of concern for its neighbors and the international community. But far less publicized is Pyongyang’s ongoing efforts to build upon its capabilities to produce and maintain chemical and biological weapons (CBW). 

North Korea’s expansion of these programs is no secret to intelligence agencies around the world, and there are a number of reports detailing sites across the country dedicated to the production of CBW. The question, though how, is has Pyongyang been able to circumvent the international CBW regime so easily?

On the question of chemical weapons, this problem is easier to understand – North Korea isn’t a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and has never been subject to inspections of its chemical industry facilities or sites believed associated with its CW program. Regardless, there’s little debate about the existence of the North’s CW program, with intelligence assessments from Russia, Britain, the United States and South Korea all indicating that Pyongyang continues to produce CW stocks.

Much less clear is the scope of the CW program and its level of advancement. Most assessments concur that the North has produced all of the main chemical agents such as nerve (including VX gas), blood, blister and choking agents.  There’s less certainty regarding the amount of chemical agents stockpiled by the regime, although estimates range from 1,000 to 5,000 tons. However, even if the North’s program is at the low end of estimates, its capacity is bolstered by the fact that its military has a variety of sophisticated delivery vehicles for CW attacks including missiles, artillery and airborne bombs.

While Pyongyang publicly denies the need for transparency on its CW program, its production of biological weapons is muddied and concealed by weak international non-proliferation standards. Unlike the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has robust verification standards, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is plagued by the failure of its members to agree on a universal verification mechanism that would adequately ensure that all state parties are held to account for their treaty commitments.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

States at the BWC have been engaged in talks to come to an agreement on a suitable verification arm, but these efforts were cut short after the United States withdrew its support back in 2001. At the time, George W. Bush’s administration insisted that such a mechanism would require considerable financial capital with little pay off in security terms. The Pentagon also stressed that it was concerned about diverting precious resources on combating BW to a multilateral organization that would in turn take away funds from its successful biodefense programs. But perhaps the largest hurdle is to overcome U.S. and other members’ concerns that a strict verification regime may impose heavy restrictions on the biotech industry.

Regardless, Pyongyang has taken advantage of the BWC’s verification gap by using its position as a state party to the BWC in order to blanket accusations that it continues to produce and maintain biological weapons.  The South Korean Defense Ministry claims that North Korea has possession of several biological agents such as anthrax bacterium, botulinum and smallpox – all of which can be weaponized.  However, South Korean and U.S. intelligence assessments about North Korea’s BW program remain highly speculative due to the nebulous nature of biological agents and their use. The thorniest issue between members of the BWC relates to the dual-use nature of biological agents and how to determine whether a program is peaceful or intended for nefarious purposes. The global science industry relies on the research conducted by studying biological materials. However, from an international security perspective, there’s the potential that this dual-use research could be diverted into a biological weapons program.

The CBW threat emanating from Pyongyang isn’t limited to the Korean Peninsula either. North Korea is widely known for its horizontal proliferation of WMD and related materials to autocratic regimes around the world, such as Syria and Burma. There’s also the terrifying possibility that the government may – or already has – traded chemical or biological agents and suitable delivery vehicles to terrorist groups, which could weaponize them to use in an asymmetric attack. The improved ability of intelligence agencies around the world to determine weapons forensics would in theory deter such an illicit transfer, but it can’t be guaranteed – especially with a desperate leadership starved of cash.  

How can the North Korean CBW threat be mitigated? South Korean officials have recently claimedthat their intelligence confirms that CBW factories were constructed in the North Korean province of Chagang last year. In response to this, the South Korean government has indicated that it will continue to pour millions of dollars into programs aimed at detecting, deterring and protecting their citizens and soldiers from a possible CBW attack from an unpredictable regime in the North. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin admitted that the program “costs a lot of money,” but argued that it’s worth it in order to protect South Korea against such an asymmetric threat.

The Defense Ministry has been pouring millions of dollars into conventional defense of a CW attack for years, and remains confident in its ability to mitigate such an incident. However, while the government is satisfied with its CW prevention efforts, Seoul has largely neglected creating a sufficient biodefense infrastructure. Korean parliamentarian Shin Hak-yong recently outlinedthis, stressing that the country’s“military defense has been excessively focused on preparedness for North Korea’s chemical attacks, rather than for its biological attacks.”

Seoul’s new biodefense strategy has three central prongs. The first relies on detection, and has been supported by the government’s planned implementation of scanning technology at ports of entry that will be able to detect ten separate disease threats. The second pillar focuses on deterrence, which is based on South Korea’s continued investment in its hard power resources, such as medium and long range surface-to-air missiles. The final ingredient is the much needed investment in protecting South Koreans in the event of a biological attack through the development and stockpiling of vaccines.

South Korea’s CBW policy seems to be focused primarily on containment, which is of course entirely rational. However, it’s lacking a driver that can morph the North’s calculus away from producing and maintaining CBW. Beginning a serious dialogue on CBW with North Korea is necessary, and could facilitate an opening for a smoother resumption to the stalled Six Party Talks on the regime’s nuclear weapons program.

Still, Seoul must be cautious – Kim Jong-il’s regime has displayed its insincerity and belligerence on several previous occasions when such talks resumed. Attempting to include CBW in the Six Party Talks would be counterproductive and would give Pyongyang more avenues to stall and launch salvos against Korea and the United States. Instead, South Korea should dangle the CBW carrot to its neighbor and hope for dialogue, while at the same time maintaining its three-pronged strategy to keep the pressure on.