By Mahasweta Muthusubbarayan
North Korea has always been a country shrouded in mystery, and this is equally true of its supposed biological weapons program. Obscure references to North Korea developing biological weapons have been found in the US and South Korean military reports and defence white papers over the years, but no concrete, documented proof has ever been found. Conjectures and inferences have been drawn from time to time about what such a program might be like. Unlike its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has never been vocal about any bio-weapons program. In fact, it has consistently denied having such a program and has signed to the Biological Weapons Convention.
US officials first suspected North Korea of developing a bio-weapon in 2006. The event which aroused suspicions was Kim Jong-un’s visit to the army’s Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute in 2015. Photographs of the visit revealed the existence of equipment which could potentially be used for developing microbial agents for use in biological weapons. There have also been reports of advances by North Korean scientist in microbial genetic engineering. Yet, there is still no credible information on whether biological weapons have been created or stockpiled in the country.
The Belfer Report
In October 2017, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs released a report titled “North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The known and the unknown”. The report was compiled using all publicly available information on the subject, including articles, books, governmental and non-governmental reports, as well as interviews with experts and former government officials.
The report estimates that North Korea’s interest in biological weapons dates sometime between the 1960s and 1980s. According to the report, there is reason to think, from government statements, defector testimonies, and other circumstantial evidence, that at some point in the past, North Korea took an interest in developing bio-weapons. Moreover, the report claims that it would be a reasonable assessment that North Korea is currently in a position to cultivate and weaponise biological agents.
It is estimated that North Korea possesses 13 pathological agents, including anthrax, botulism, smallpox, cholera, plague and Korean haemorrhagic fever. The South Korean government believes that North Korea maintains at least three potential bioweapon production facilities and seven research centres. These include the Central Biological Weapons Research Institute in Pyongyang, the No. 25 Factory in Chongju, and a plant in the City of Munchon.
Is it possible that bioweapons exist?
The biggest failing of the Biological Weapons Convention, which forbids the development, production and stockpiling of bioweapons, is that it did not make any provision for inspection and monitoring to check compliance. The equipment used for fermenting and storing microbes are freely used in the agricultural bio-industry, research universities and in pharmaceutical labs. This makes it quite easy to conceal labs developing bio-weapons, with the equipment serving a ‘dual-purpose’. The Australia Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and a UN Security Council resolution all prohibit the export of such ‘dual-use’ equipment to North Korea.
The reason why the new photos of the Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute evoked so much concern is that the facility is engaged in producing organic pesticides. Some of the equipment at the institute has the potential to be used for producing military-grade batches of bio-weapons. For comparison, the Soviet Union’s massive ‘Biopreparat’ project, which employed more than 50,000 people in various facilities, manufactured and stockpiled tonnes of biological agents and engineered multidrug-resistant microbes, for decades, without being discovered. Any bio-weapon project in North Korea would be on a much smaller scale and so concealment would be much easier.
Why develop bio-weapons?
Throughout history, diseases have caused more deaths in war than actual combat. Skilfully employed biological weapons can cause lethal pandemics and incur mass deaths within a short span of time. Furthermore, the development of biological weapons is cheaper than nuclear or chemical weapons and requires relatively few resources. These weapons can also be dispersed in a number of ways and the weapons and by-products are hard to detect without vigilant monitoring.
With all these tactical advantages, biological weapons constitute a very attractive way for a weaker power to gain the strategic upper-hand in war. Should North Korea ever resume its war with South Korea and the US, the deployment of carefully-chosen biological weapons might just turn out to give them such an edge. The US already vaccinates its troops in the Korean peninsula against some common pathological agents, however, South Korean troops are not being vaccinated. Another use of biological weapons would be against civilians in order to create civil panic and disruption.
Viability of using bio-weapons in a war
Bio-weapons can be ‘fired’ in different ways, such as through aerosols sprayed from aeroplanes or drones, or else dispersed in water bodies, sprayed on crops, or loaded onto ballistic missiles. Indeed, bio-weapons have already been successfully deployed on multiple occasions. In the past, Germany used biological weapons to take down cavalry in World War I, Japan unleashed bio-weapons on the Chinese during World War II and during the Seven Years War, the British gave Native Americans blankets infected with the smallpox virus.
However, since the Second World War biological weapons have only been used by terrorists and other non-state acts. Indeed, in order to use these weapons to be effective in the 21st century, the aggressive power will have to develop more virulent and contagious strains of the pathogens which are resistant to modern vaccines, drugs and antibiotics. This would require skilled genetic engineering.
Currently, international law prohibits countries from producing and using biological weapons. Although many countries had a bioweapons program in the past, including the US, these programs have now been dismantled. Using biological weapons today would have strong repercussions. Even if most countries cannot retaliate with bio-weapons of their own, they are likely to pull together and enforce heavy sanctions against any country that develops or uses such weapons.
A recent change of circumstance
North Korea did once invite the US Congress to inspect the Pyongyang Bio-Technical Institute a number of years ago. Under the previous North Korean leader, when the US and North Korea enjoyed somewhat better relations, a similar course of action was adopted regarding nuclear development in the country.
Nevertheless, since the inspections have stopped, North Korea has successfully developed nuclear weapons and may well spring a similar surprise with biological weapons. For now, North Korea’s biological program is only a rumour, however, it is unwise to merely watch-and-wait while North Korea’s showman leader, Kim Jong-Un, continues to heighten the stakes.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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