Wednesday, April 2, 2014

North Korea's Biological Weapon Program

"There has been widespread discussion of North Korea developing anthrax as a biological agent, as well as many references to it developing cholera, plague, and smallpox. For example, speaking of the smallpox virus, Dr. Ken Alibek, a former senior scientist in the Soviet biological weapon program, has said: “I'm 100% sure North Korea still has this virus. Even in the late 80s, we had some information obtained from Soviet intelligence service that North Korea was developing biological weapons, involving anthrax, plague, smallpox and several others.”
-----The Challenge of North Korea Biological Weapons, Bruce W. Bennett, Rand Office of External Affairs

Many state's including Syria and Iran, maintain rather robust biological warfare complex. While the non-proliferation community generally sits on the side-lines, having limited access to either sources inside these programs/laboratories or classified intelligence, and thus relegated to refuting government assessments and trying to persuade the public, that if these programs exist, they are not a threat. In fact quite the opposite is the case. Bio-terrorism aside, a state biological warfare/weapon (BW) program poses serious risks to global health security. Generally, my expertise is in assessing Syrian and Iranian BW programs, but North Korea is an interesting place when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and persistent attempts at acquisition of precursors. While North Korea has acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, it has not ratified it. As there is no Verification Protocol or inspection regime, as is the case with the Chemical Weapons Convention and it's inspectorate the OPCW in the Hague, North Korea, like Syria and Iran is not legally bound,  by international treaties to declare any of their existing offensive BW research or 'stockpiles." Just to note Iran has ratified the BTWC. No inspections will be conducted under the BTWC as no inspection regime exists and for reasons I would generally support. Unfortunately the down side is no inspections for countries which should be of real concern to non-proliferation and arms control folks. So basically North Korea is good to go with their clandestine BW efforts.

A review of open source literature on the topic of North Korea's biological weapon programs, in fact the volume of literature itself is quite considerable. While I can discuss Syria and Iran at length, blindfolded, North Korea doesn't possess your garden snake variety of biological weapon complex  and has a number of interesting and complex facets, absent from the Syrian and Iranian programs. As a lowly bio-defence analyst I will leave discussions on the sanity of the DPRK leadership aside, taking 'intent' out of the equation, which usually stirs up emotional responses and bleating from the non-proliferation community and focus instead on scientific aspects of North Korea's BW program.

Turning to a Rand report (  the following is noted: 

"Among the evidence available, several observations stand out. The first, from a Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense White paper, traces the initiative for North Korean biological weapons development back to the 1980s. 
“In the 1980s, the military turned to the development of biological weapons according to Kim Il-sung’s directive that ‘poisonous gas and bacteria can be used effectively in war.’ … The North is also suspected of maintaining numerous facilities for cultivating and producing the bacteria of anthrax and other forms of biological weapons.”4

A second observation comes from a Russian intelligence report from the early 1990’s. “In 1993, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB, released a statement that said, in part: ‘North Korea is performing applied military-biological research in a whole number of universities, medical institutes and specialized research institutes. Work is being performed in these research centers with inducers of malignant anthrax, cholera, bubonic plague and smallpox. Biological weapons are being tested on the island territories belonging to the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea).’ Mr. Gordon Oehler, director of the CIA’s [Central Intelligence Agency’s] Non-Proliferation Center, confirmed this Russian report.”5

And a third open-source reference cites reports from North Korean defectors over the past decade. “Sporadic reports by defectors during 2003–2004 and 2009 state that the DPRK has conducted testing of biological agents on political prisoners. For example, ‘...tests are conducted on political prisoners by the College for Army Doctor and 
Military Officers and Kim Il-sung University Medical College.’ While these reports present numerous details, they are extremely difficult to confirm. They do, however, conform to older reports of this nature that have occasionally appeared since the late 1970s. Taken as a whole, and within the context of what is currently known about the treatment of political prisoners within the DPRK, such reports suggest a long-standing DPRK policy of low-level lethal testing of biological agents on unwilling human subjects.”6 Moreover, "since anthrax is not a major health concern in North Korea, one must wonder, in particular, about the motivation behind the North Korean anthrax defensive programs. As another example, Korean Hemorrhagic Fever (also called Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome, or HFRS) is endemic to North and South Korea. Anxious to reduce the impact of this disease, Dr. H. W. Lee of South Korea developed a “human inactivated” virus vaccine for Korean Hemorrhagic Fever.8
More than 20 years ago, Dr. Lee reported that the North Koreans developed a similar vaccine, which in 1990 had already been given to 30,000 people.9 Since North Korea rarely provides antibiotics for most public health challenges, the development of this vaccine suggests a possible military interest in its availability. Other suspicions grow out of the North Korean vaccine programs: “During the past ten years DPRK scientists and researchers have engaged in research to produce vaccines and diagnostic test kits for avian flu, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and anthrax. In 2004 scientists and researchers from the Central Hygiene Center, Ministry of Health, produced a[n] anthrax rapid diagnostic kit. Such research is not only valuable for defensive biological warfare but could be directly applicable to offensive operations.”7 See:
The Other DoD Report You May Have Missed: North Korea
Image Credit: Wikicommons

A couple years back NTI put out a nice map detailing the DPRK BW sites. It is consistent with current suspected sites. It is available on their site: While North Korea has long been the focus of nuclear disarmament, the biological programs, as is the case with most nations suspected of having such programs, has been skimming the radar for some years. It is worth considering however, that beyond Six Party Talks, a far more concerning class of weapons is in the possession of this regime. While global public health is a real concern, so too is the testing of political prison populations with BW which sadly is not historically uncommon in such regimes. 

Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics, a private consultancy based in the Netherlands.

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