America and Its Allies Are Underestimating North Korea's Other Big Threat
The war of words between the Trump White House and the North Korean dictator over nuclear weapons has led national security experts to warn that the U.S., South Korea and its allies are overlooking another dire prospect: the threat of biological weapons.
“Threats posed by North Korea’s biological weapons program must be considered a realistic proposition and addressed by the international community,” wrote Hyun-Kyung Kim, Elizabeth Philipp and Hattie Chung in their new report, "North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The Known and The Unknown," from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Decades of open source information affirm that North Korea has held an interest in developing a bioweapons (BW) program.”
The researchers say North Korea had many more options to make, conceal and use biological weapons than it does with nuclear arms. It emphasizes the international fallout for using biological agents is not as severe as with nuclear weapons, suggesting that the U.S. and its allies need to pay more attention to this threat and even prepare for the possibility.
“The international community, led by the United States, South Korea, and China, should invest in further efforts to gather intelligence on North Korea’s biological weapons capability,” the report says. “Investing resources to strengthen health systems will mitigate against the risk posed by North Korea’s BW program as well as against natural infectious disease outbreaks, which we label as ‘dual-response.’ Preparedness efforts should be undertaken even if the international community makes incremental progress on engaging North Korea on this issue.”
The Belfer Center’s warning comes at an unsettling time for Americans, following a summer in which President Trump and the North Korean dictator verbally sparred over North Korean missile tests that domestic military experts said could transport a nuclear device to America’s western border. The threat of biowarfare was falsely used by the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003. Since then, the Syrian civil war has been the highest-profile conflict where biological weapons were reportedly used.
While it’s hard to know where to separate the real threats from the paranoia and hyped militarism, the Belfer Center’s report lays out the history of biological warfare accusations and threats between the North Koreans and the U.S., and notes that Kim Jong-un appears to have used nerve gas to assassinate his half-brother last February.
“Amidst the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear program, the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother via VX nerve agent in February 2017 brought renewed interest in North Korea’s other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs—chemical and biological weapons,” the report said. “If used on a large scale, these weapons can cause not only tens of thousands of deaths, but also create panic and paralyze societies. Nevertheless, the vividness of the nuclear threat has overshadowed other weapons programs, limiting the attention and policy input that they deserve.”
The Belfer Center report said that South Korea’s government takes the bio-warfare threat seriously, and points to a lengthy white paper by its military that discusses the prospect.
“North Korea began developing chemical weapons following Kim Il Sung’s ‘Declaration for Chemicalization’ in December 1961 by establishing its own policy and installing chemical weapons research and development facilities,” that South Korean military assessment said, summarizing the history. “Following the commencement of production in the 1980s, it is estimated that North Korea has a stock of 2,500−5,000 tons of various chemical weapons stored in multiple facilities throughout the country. Moreover, North Korea likely has the capability to produce a variety of biological weapons including anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever virus.”
“The majority of North Korea’s wartime material is stored in underground facilities, while the stockpile of these materials is estimated to last 2-3 months,” the South Korean military report said. “However, North Korea’s ability to sustain a prolonged operation will be limited without further external purchase or assistance.”
The Belfer Center report expands on this history, saying more current and even older events have led North Korea to accuse the U.S. of using biological weapons against it.
“During the Korean War (1950-1953), North Korea’s population experienced outbreaks of cholera, typhus, typhoid, and smallpox, which North Korea falsely attributed to biological weapons attacks by the United States,” the report said. “This provided an impetus for creating its own BW program. The exact timeline is unclear. According to recent defector Tae Young-Ho, a former North Korean diplomat, North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons program started in the early 1960s, and according to a South Korean Defense White Paper, North Korea began weaponizing biological agents in the 1980s. Furthermore, it is known that North Korea’s soldiers are vaccinated against smallpox, suggesting either an interest in an offensive BW program or a biodefense precaution.”
While North Korea has historically denied having any biological weapons, the Belfer Center scholars say an incident in 2015 in which the U.S. military sent some germ warfare agents to South Korea prompted the North to recalibrate that assertion.
“In 2015, when U.S. forces accidentally brought live Bacillus anthracis [Anthrax] test samples and Yersinia pestis [Plague] samples to the Osan Air Force base in South Korea, North Korea immediately issued a statement denying the existence of its BW program and accused the United States of targeting North Korea with a biological weapons attack,” the Belfer Center report says. “It even called on the UN Security Council to investigate the United States.”
This climate of mutual suspicion and finger-pointing is emblematic of the biological weapons fold because, unlike nuclear weapons, bio-warfare agents are harder to detect and monitor as they are made in the same agricultural industrial facilities that make fertilizers. The military analysts say such facilities are designed for “dual use,” thus “making external monitoring and verification virtually impossible.”
“North Korea is assumed to have several pathogens in possession,” the Belfer report said. “The 2000 ROK [South Korea] Defense White Paper mentions anthrax and smallpox most frequently. Since 2012, the plague (Yersinia pestis) and others have been on the list as well... Agents mentioned in the White Papers, however, are not exhaustive. More information on North Korea’s BW has been disclosed through other occasions, which maps out 13 agents: Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Clostridium botulinum (Botulism), Vibrio cholerae (Cholera), Bunyaviridae hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever), Yersinia pestis (Plague), Variola (Smallpox), Salmonella typhi (Typhoid Fever), Coquillettidia fuscopennata (Yellow Fever), Shigella (Dysentery), Brucella (Brucellosis), Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), Rickettsia prowazekii (Typhus Fever), and T-2 mycotoxin (Alimentary Toxic Aleukia).”
Here, the Belfer Center’s report delves into unknowns, suggesting that if North Korea isn’t given the benefit of the doubt, then it appears to have bio-weapons.
“While most pesticides worldwide are chemical, North Korea’s interest in organic, biological pesticides has increased,” the report notes. “Some point out that this shift from chemical to bio-pesticides could signal an expansion of North Korea’s BW program, though it could simply be a consistent part of Kim Jong-Un’s priority to enhance agricultural productivity. In March 2017, according to the Rodong Sinmun (a newspaper), North Korea built an organic fertilizer production complex that covers ‘thousands of square meters’ in Gangnamgun, Pyongyang, that is claimed to be capable of producing thousands of tons of organic fertilizers. North Korea intends to continue exponential increase in bio-pesticide production to achieve Kim Jong-Un’s goal of producing ‘Juche fertilizer,’ named after North Korea’s self-reliance ideology.
The Belfer Center points to photos showing the North Korean dictator touring fertilizer plants whose dual use could be for making biological weapons.
“A series of photos of the Pyongyang Bio-Technical Institute released by the North Korean state media in 2015 raised concerns for dual-use,” it said. “Analysis of these images revealed that the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute could produce military-sized batches of BWs, specifically anthrax. In response to this study, North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC) issued a statement strongly refuting the claim that the Biotechnology Institute is an anthrax production facility. It furthermore invited every member of the U.S. Congress to inspect the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute.”
The Belfer Center report noted that the South Korean military was not giving the North any benefit of the doubt, however.
“South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense pointed out that the facilities in the images were not equipped with biosafety equipment and that staff were not wearing protective suits, emphasizing that the possibility of the Institute being a dual-use facility should be considered with caveats,” the Belfer report says. “North Korea may not, however, adhere to international biosafety standards, considering its historical record of treating people as expendable entities; testimonies from defectors allege that North Korea uses human subjects in testing biological and chemical weapons. Also, biosafety equipment and protective suits would only be required during the actual production of BW agents.”
The Belfer Center report says there is debate in military circles about how quickly North Korea could produce live bio-weapons—and how many of them they are likely to have. On the other hand, the center said the North has many ways to deliver these weapons, far more than with nuclear arms.
“Missiles, drones, airplanes, sprayers, and human vectors are potential means of BW delivery,” their report said. “North Korea’s 240 mm Multiple Rocket Launcher (MRL) is also identified as a potential delivery vehicle for biological weapons. Lastly, human agents have been discussed consistently as plausible BW delivery means. Its culture of North Korea prioritizing military objectives over human lives could drive it to use human vectors to deliver and spread BW. North Korea has 200,000 Special Forces [troops]; even a handful of those Special Forces armed with BW would be enough to devastate South Korea.”
“What is alarming about human vectors is that they do not need sophisticated training or technology to spread BW amongst the targets, and they are difficult to detect in advance of an attack,” the report continued. “It is theoretically possible that North Korean sleeper agents disguised as cleaning and disinfection personnel could disperse BW agents with backpack sprayers. Another possibility is that North Korean agents will introduce BW into water supplies for major metropolitan areas.”
The bottom line, according to the Belfer Center, is “the international community, led by the United States, South Korea, and China, should invest in further efforts to gather intelligence on North Korea’s biological weapons capability.” The Center also says the healthcare sector in South Korea should be prepared to respond on a large scale to a bio-warfare attack.
What the Harvard scholars did not discuss in their anticipate-the-worst analysis are the highest-profile factors that could transform any conflict with North Korea from a war of words to a war of weapons. That factor, needless to say, is the volatile and unpredictable temperaments of the U.S. president and the North Korean leader.
Americans have enough to worry about with Trump as president without adding a new hand-wringing item to the list. But as the Belfer Center reminds everyone, North Korea doesn’t just have conventional and nuclear weapons, it also has bio-warfare agents.