Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beyond Nuclear: North Korea’s Other Weapons Threat

Via The Diplomat (Nov. 12, 2011) -

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.


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.


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.

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