Military and Police

North Korean WMD Is Not Just Nuclear

Kim Jong Un’s obsession with developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching American territory has absorbed the world’s attention for the better part of a year.  It also may have diverted the world’s attention from North Korean WMD, or weapons of mass destruction, that are not nuclear.  Recent reports have highlighted the dangers posed by the hermit kingdom’s chemical and biological agents.

Chemical Weapons: A Murder with a Message

In February of this year, the North Korean dictator had his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, murdered in the Kuala Lumpur airport.  Two teams of assassins were standing ready, but it took only one team to do the job.  Two women smeared oily toxins on Kim Jong Nam’s face.  Two of the men who had shadowed the team of women quickly disappeared through the departure gate after the assault, and left the country.  Four North Korean men also were later implicated in the attack, including a diplomat and an employee of the state-owned airline.

The women claim they were told they were taking part in a TV prank show.  One worked in a local massage parlor, the other has been described simply as working in the entertainment industry.  They were promised $90 and a chance to appear on television for their participation.

“His message about VX was, ‘We have it,’ ” said the former CIA analyst.

The means of murdering Mr. Kim was the toxic chemical agent VX.  Most chemical weapons experts who have studied the tapes of the attack speculate that it was administered in a binary form.  That is, each woman applied a separate precursor chemical to Kim’s face, and it didn’t actually become VX until the second chemical mixed with the first.  That seemed the best explanation for why Mr. Kim died so quickly, but the women survived.

Long-time North Korea specialists disagree about what message Kim Jong Un was sending by using VX.  Some believe he thought it would be hard to trace, and that he wanted deniability.  Others believe exactly the opposite.

The Washington Post spoke with Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst, who suggested that part of the purpose was to issue a threat.  “Kim Jong Un’s plan was to showcase his ability to strike with terrifying weapons,” the Post reporter writes.  “His message about VX was, ‘We have it,’ ” said Terry, the former CIA analyst. “He knew they would eventually find it.”

State of the Art Facilities for Biological Weapons

In addition to chemical weapons, North Korea has high-tech facilities for fermenting, drying, and aerosolizing biological weapons (BW).  The Belfer Center at Harvard University published a review of unclassified literature on North Korean WMD in April 2017.  The report lists the BW the North Koreans are believed to have, and the list is sobering.

North Korean WMD

Anthrax, smallpox and bubonic plague are the germs most commonly mentioned.  North Korean soldiers all are vaccinated against smallpox, as are South Korean soldiers and Americans deployed to the peninsula. Allied forces are provided with protective gear to defend against anthrax attacks.

A few pounds of highly aerosolized anthrax powder would be sufficient to kill about half the residents of Seoul.

Various public documents list thirteen pathogens believed to be in North Korea’s possession.  “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).”

There is some doubt about North Korea’s ability to weaponize and deliver biological agents.  The Belfer Center report contains some informed speculation that is productive.  While BW are notoriously difficult to deliver via missiles or rockets because of the physical conditions produced by flight and impact (heat, friction, explosion), there are other possible methods.

Contamination of drinking water, aerosol dispersal from drones, direct application by sleeper agents on suicide missions, and mass dispersal by airplanes are all potential delivery methods.  The type of BW most likely to be used are anthrax and smallpox, according to the South Korean Ministry of Defense.  And they are lethal.  A few pounds of highly aerosolized anthrax powder distributed across Seoul would be sufficient to kill about half the residents of the city.

War planners in Seoul and the Pentagon have been preparing contingency plans for decades.  They cover every facet of potential conflict with North Korea.  As President Trump and his advisors seek a way to protect America from nuclear weapons, they must remain mindful of the other North Korean WMD.


The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

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