Between intermittent U.S. posturing and a plethora of missile tests and military parades getting weapons experts excited, North Korea has been providing Asia-focused geopolitical analysts with significant new discussions over the last few months. But while the world focuses its attention on missiles potentially capable of carrying miniaturised nuclear warheads, there is another dimension to North Korea’s WMD arsenal that is gets little attention. In this piece, Asia-based military affairs analyst Alex Stafford examines the DPRK’s chemical and biological weapons program.
The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) has long-established chemical and biological weapons programs that date back to the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and China, according to U.S. and South Korean intelligence, provided them with new high-level technology. These technology transfers, some of which involved the results of the infamous Japanese chemical weapons tests in Manchuria, formed the basis of decades of North Korean development. By the 1980s, when Pyongyang’s stockpiles of such weapons were already thought to total between 180–250 tons, Kim Il-Sung told the Central Military Committee to produce “poison gas and germ weapons” for use in war. This would mirror the old Soviet doctrine of using chemical weapons to disrupt the enemy’s rear areas and logistics, or to clear industrial facilities without causing long-term damage to usable infrastructure.
These days clear information on any aspect of North Korean defence remains as porous as ever, reliant on sporadic and questionable defector reports and veiled comments by North Korean officials. Pyongyang has never disclosed any details of its chemical and biological facilities and its production capacities can only be estimated. A 2012 estimate in the South Korean government’s defense White Paper put DPRK chemical weapons stockpiles at between 2,500 – 5,000 tons. This was likely to include such agents as sarin, tabun, phosgenes and various mustard and other nerve agents, some of which could be delivered on the battlefield by artillery, bombers, missiles or even used in asymmetric-warfare raids by North Korean special forces. The assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur airport with a chemical agent that was later discovered to be VX is an indicator of Pyongyang’s willingness to use such weapons. The killing also demonstrated that the DPRK has advanced to a stage of producing binary chemical agents that are much more stable to store long term and therefore stockpile.
The use of some difficult-to-detect biological agent to weaken South Korea’s defences prior to an attack is plausible.
The Kim Jong-Nam murder was also not the first time the DPRK has used a chemical agent in a plot to remove a dissident; in 2011 an attempt was made on the life of South Korean information activist Park Sang-Hak with neostigmine bromide. Claims have circulated that human test subjects have been used for the development of these agents by Pyongyang.
When it comes to bio-weapons, the North appears to be less developed. North Korea is thought to have a number of dangerous biological agents, but these are suspected of being only available to them in small sample-level quantities. Due to the inherent risks of storing substantial quantities of viral or bacterial agents, Pyongyang seems to have come to the decision that these are not worth the risk. However, it is estimated that the DPRK can make as many as a dozen different pathogens and has conducted extensive research at a number of facilities over the years. Most of this research has been around anthrax, cholera and plague. Although these are difficult to weaponise, the use of such weapons by special forces or aerosol deployment by aircraft remains a risk. The use of some difficult-to-detect biological agent to weaken South Korea’s defences prior to an attack is plausible.
Despite these developments, the question remains around whether North Korea would be willing to use such weapons on a large scale. Firing chemical artillery shells into the rear of U.S. or South Korean forces in the event of a conflict would certainly cause widespread condemnation but wouldn’t guarantee a nuclear retaliation by the U.S. The use of such weapons against civilian targets would likely provoke a tougher response however. More concerning is the greater difficulties in protecting against such an attack, especially amongst non-CBRN trained civilian populations.
So, while the world calculates the possible range of lofted missiles and Trump plays with carrier group deployments, maybe a little more attention should be given to the other weapons in Pyongyang’s arsenals.
Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.
Photo credit: Sgt. J.C. McKenzie, U.S. military