The Long Shadow of Chemical Weapons

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The Long Shadow of Chemical Weapons

As recent debates swirl around nuclear weapons, chemical weapons have the potential to cause great harm — especially in Asia.

Thus far Asia has largely evaded the chemical weapons challenge now confronting Middle Eastern and NATO countries as they contemplate how to respond to the civil war in Syria and consolidate peace and security in Libya and Iraq. For good reason, most attention has focused on the emerging nuclear weapons powers of Iran and North Korea as well as the tense relations among the existing nuclear weapons states in Asia.

The recent angst surrounding the possible use of chemical weapons stockpiles by regime diehards in Syria, or their seizure by extremist elements among the insurgents, underscore the continued danger of chemical weapons proliferation and the need to take stronger measures to oppose it. 

Allied leaders have adopted strong declarations against Assad using chemical weapons even while they contemplate unpleasant contingency plans to secure or eliminate the material on their own. Last month President Obama said that his administration had “increased concern” that Syria would engage in the “totally unacceptable” use of chemical weapons. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons,” he warned, “there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

Syria is widely suspected of having one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including a range of chemical agents (from unsophisticated choking agents to advanced nerve agents), several delivery systems (such as missiles, bombs, and shells), and multiple stockpiles in which the chemical precursors can be rapidly combined to arm the weapons. These could prove very effective if used against the rebel forces, which lack any protection against chemical weapons. Additionally, the Assad regime could use them against foreign nations such as Turkey which has strongly backed the rebel forces.

Perhaps the most serious danger is that, when the Assad regime falls, malicious non-state actors will seize Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Despite its desire to stay out of the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration may need to send U.S. troops to Syria to secure the chemical agents and related infrastructure to prevent terrorists from gaining control of them.

Even if these stocks are secure, the agents required to produce chemical weapons are widely available. Many countries possess industries capable of producing large quantities of such chemicals. Additionally, poorly secured caches of weaponized chemical compounds in the former Soviet Union offer potential weapons to for terrorist organizations, criminal groups, or rogue regimes.

Improvised chemical explosive devices can be produced with widely available chemicals and without much chemical expertise. Under certain conditions, even a minor CW attack could cause widespread panic and immense economic losses, transforming limited attacks into major incidents.

Asia received a warning two decades ago about how a significant quantity of a chemical agent in a concentrated area could be extremely deadly. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was based in Japan but operated in many Asian countries, undertook a large-scale program to develop weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s. Notwithstanding its vast resources, the cult proved unable to develop biological or nuclear weapons, but it did manage to make sarin. Although its 1995 operation in the Tokyo Subway resulted in only a dozen deaths, more than 5,000 people were hospitalized. Many more people might have died had AumShinrikyo used the gas more effectively, had conducted the operation in more favorable weather conditions, or used an even more deadly chemical agent. 

Guerrillas have also used chemical weapons in insurgencies. In 2007, groups of Iraqi guerrillas detonated vehicular-borne improvised explosive devices that combined conventional explosives with chlorine gas in canisters. These attacks were not very effective against their targets–Iraqi security forces and civilians as well as coalition troops. They would have been much more deadly against unprotected civilians.

Terrorist targeting of chemical facilities is also a grave concern. Various U.S. government and non-government experts had identified the United States as potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks against chemical plants or rail tankers transporting toxic chemicals such as chlorine. In its “National Planning Scenarios,” the Department of Homeland Security used one scenario involving the detonation of a chlorine storage tank that resulted in 17,500 deaths and more than 100,000 injuries.

The potential magnitude of such disasters are well-known to Asians, who can readily recall the December 1984 toxic gas release at the Union Carbide India pesticide plant at Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, which exposed more than half a million people to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. Perhaps as many as 10,000 people died and many more have since suffered from their debilitating injuries. The Union Carbide Corporation claims a disgruntled worker sabotaged the plant. A terrorist could do likewise at many other chemical storage or production plants, which typically are not as heavily guarded as military, nuclear, or government facilities. 

Although not as well-known as the gas attacks in Europe during World War I, Asian countries have used chemical weapons in their own conflicts. During the 1930 and 1940s, the Imperial Japanese Army that tried to conquer China abandoned hundreds of thousands of chemical munitions used for artillery shells on Chinese territory after Japan’s surrender. Following years of frustrating delays, China and Japan have only recently begun eliminating these weapons.

Japan has committed to paying all the elimination costs, including excavating the weapons, transporting them to a disposal point, and destroying them in an environmentally acceptable manner. But Japanese contractors have sometimes found working inside China on such a controversial issue challenging. The Chinese authorities arrested several of them on espionage charges in September 2010 to coerce the Japanese government into releasing the fishing boat captain who rammed several Japanese Coast Guard ships in the disputed waters of the East China Sea. 

Although recent news coverage has focused on threats in the Middle East, North Korea is thought to have one of the world’s largest operational chemical weapons arsenals. General Leon LaPorte, former commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, said that North Korean military doctrine “is to use chemical weapons as a standard munition.”

The announcement a few years ago that South Korea had eliminated its own chemical weapons, like the earlier removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from ROK territory, had little impact on North Korea’s chemical weapons policy, partly because Seoul had always declined to publicize its chemical weapons holdings or elimination efforts.

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.      

Although the OPCW is not an anti-terrorism institution, since 9/11 the States Parties have encouraged the organization to support national and international efforts to deny terrorists access to chemical weapons. The OPCW runs an Open-Ended Working Group on Terrorism and tries to share national expertise through other training, workshops, and other outreach efforts. But the OPCW lacks a program like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which directly addresses WMD terrorist threats.

The OPCW has focused on eliminating existing military stockpiles and facilities while devoting insufficient resources to monitoring civilian chemical facilities. These so-called other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) can produce chemical agents, but many developing countries in Asia, where many OCPFs can be found, resist the burden of more inspections or regulations. The global migration of chemical manufacturing from Western developed nations to developing countries with weaker national regulations and export controls complicates CWC enforcement.

Furthermore, the Convention must be modernized to keep pace with the many scientific and technological developments that are sweeping through the global chemical sector, including the use of multi-purpose chemical facilities that can quickly alter the products they manufacture, allowing rapid “break out” capacities, as well as the spread of chemical production plants to many more countries. Progress in nanotechnology and bio-technology also creates both new methods of making chemical weapons as well as new means of using them.

In addition, the advent of micro-reactors could considerably decrease the time needed to manufacture existing or create entirely novel toxic compounds. If used to make weapons, micro-reactors and other new chemical production or chemical plant construction might not exhibit the traditional signatures, such as large pollution emissions, that intelligence services employ to detect chemical weapons threats.

The CWC will hold its third review conference in April. This occasion will provide an opportunity to upgrade the convention to surmount these and other challenges. Asian states can play a major role in helping this modernization and reinforcement process. For example, they can stockpile the equipment a country suffering a chemical attack would need to recover from a major incident. Many countries that have pledged to render assistance to a country suffering from a chemical incident have antiquated equipment and lack means to transport their aid.

Asian countries can provide the OPCW with more resources to monitor the possible manufacturing and clandestine trafficking of chemical weapons. The OPCW, which has had zero-growth budgets since 2006 that have barely matched the nominal inflation rate, needs more resources to hire additional people and buy new equipment to respond to the world’s increasingly large, diverse, dispersed, and sophisticated commercial chemical industry.