In September, U.S. President Donald Trump explained that he wanted to hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump was glad to see Kim’s declaration at the inter-Korea summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, explicitly supporting the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but Washington should not be satisfied with the current scope of North Korean denuclearization. Trump also needs to talk with Pyongyang about its extensive arsenal of other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as its biological and chemical weapons and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.
There are three reasons why Trump has to pursue North Korean WMD disarmament in addition to denuclearization, and he should bring these concerns to the negotiations with North Korea at the second U.S.-DPRK summit.
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First, North Korea’s biological weapons (BW) and chemical weapons (CW) capabilities can offset any denuclearization agreement that is reached between the United States and North Korea. If Washington and Seoul are able to attain North Korean concessions on denuclearization, but do not deal with Pyongyang’s BW and CW in the same process, North Korea will still be able to threaten South Korea with capabilities that are nearly as destructive as nuclear weapons.
North Korea has 13 different types of biological weapons such as anthrax and smallpox, which it can weaponize within 10 days. According to a report by the Korea Institute for National Unification, North Korea has the ability to make a ton of anthrax in a year. Anthrax has a greater than 80 percent fatality rate, with 50 percent of afflicted people dying within two days. A mere 200 pounds of anthrax can kill around 3 million people.
Pyongyang is also thought to possess the world’s largest arsenal of CW after the United States and Russia. Many experts guess that North Korea has stockpiled between 2,500-5,000 tons of CW and that it has the capability to make an additional 12,000 tons at maximum capacity. According to RAND’s Bruce Bennett, one ton of sarin gas can kill 230,000 people and North Korea already has a stockpile of around 5,000 tons.
Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Weapons
North Korea’s EMP weapons are also a big problem. As detailed by a 2017 report from a congressional commission on the threats posed to the United States by EMP attack, a North Korean EMP against the United States could decimate 90 percent of the U.S. population in a single year from starvation, disease, and lack of services. After detonation of an EMP, nuclear power plants could experience meltdowns, mass transportation would be paralyzed, and electronics would be fried.
As EMPs are divided into two categories, both nuclear and non-nuclear, it is important for the United States to deal with both of these capabilities simultaneously. If North Korea only has nuclear EMP weapons, the problem will be resolved by the ongoing denuclearization process. However, if North Korea has developed non-nuclear EMP weapons too, these must be addressed in a separate, but concurrent, process to denuclearization. Otherwise, Pyongyang will retain this deadly capability, which it can use to hold the United States, South Korea, and Japan at risk.
The Proliferation Challenge
There is also a proliferation challenge associated with North Korea’s WMD capabilities. If it so chooses, Pyongyang can sell its BW and CW to a rogue state or terrorist group. International sanctions against North Korea have starved the country of cash, making illicit arms sales attractive to Pyongyang. Indeed, North Korea has supplied Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime with parts and technical assistance for its chemical weapons program, which it has used to attack opposition forces repeatedly throughout the Syrian Civil War. Furthermore, given that North Korea and Iran already cooperate militarily and many North Korean arms dealers live in Tehran, it is possible that North Korea could help Iran obtain or improve BW and CW capabilities. If North Korea helps Iran develop an emerging biochemical ability, denuclearization negotiations with Tehran will become more complex and costly than before.
What Washington Should Do
The United States should use a “salami strategy” like North Korea by including its BW, CW and EMP weapons in the broader denuclearization negotiations. By chopping up its denuclearization-related concessions into small parts, North Korea has made minor concessions while demanding that the United States and South Korea give up more in return. This is how Pyongyang has sought to make minor concessions while maximizing its national interest.
For example, Kim Jong Un promised to dismantle the Dongchang-li missile launch site and to abolish the Yongbyon nuclear facility, but North Korea already has accumulated nuclear materials and achieved a useable thermonuclear weapons program. Furthermore, North Korea has framed these measures as large concessions when they are primarily symbolic, rather than substantive, since North Korea is suspected to have up to 40 nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has demanded reciprocal U.S. concessions, such as declaring an official end to the Korean War.
In devising a strategy to deal with the WMD problem, the United States should also use this “salami strategy” against Pyongyang by requiring North Korean concessions on CW, BW and EMP in exchange for further U.S. concessions. In other words, the United States sets the parameters for future North Korean concessions, limiting Pyongyang’s ability to stall for time or obscure what it is actually giving up.
If the United States focuses solely on denuclearizing the Korea Peninsula, Washington will miss an opportunity to eliminate North Korea’s other weapons of mass destruction. Because North Korea can accrue many benefits such as lifting sanctions and achieving an official end the Korean War from the current denuclearization process, Pyongyang currently has no incentive to participate in separate agreements concerning WMDs. For these reasons, Trump must include WMDs in future discussions on lifting sanctions to achieve a durable peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Sungku Jang is an ASAN fellow at the Center for the National Interest.