Forgotten takeaway from the killing of Kim Jong-Nam: North Korea’s bio-chemical WMD threat
By Donald Kirk
The poisoning of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un should make everyone painfully aware of a category of “weapons of mass destruction” that’s overlooked in the controversy over nuclear devices.
In all the negotiations, recriminations, talk and double-talk about North Korea’s nuclear menace, little is said about the North’s highly sophisticated program for developing chemical and biological “weapons of mass destruction.” How advanced the North Koreans are may not be clear, but they’ve developed dozens of types, ranging from anthrax to ricin to sarin and potassium cyanide, to name a few.
The North Koreans may not be as far along as others in chemical and biological warfare, but they are definitely capable of inflicting death with VX, the chemical nerve agent that killed Kim Jong-Nam at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The question is whether they can deliver this and other agents on a mass scale, spraying them over vast areas, killing thousands as would a nuclear explosion.
Just as North Korean scientists and engineers have not quite figured out how to tip an intercontinental missile with a scaled-down warhead, so they may not have the capability of delivering chemical and biological agents to distant targets. Considering they could probably fire these awful solutions from artillery weapons, they must be well on the way to that stage.
All of which makes one thing certain: chemical and biological warfare should be on the table for negotiations with the North Koreans along with their nuclear program. Those who would like to renew the dormant negotiating process to persuade North Korea to abandon its nukes in exchange for various forms of aid and goodwill should insist on getting these other means of mass killing on the agenda too.
It seems odd, reviewing the history of pleas to North Korea about its nuclear weapons, that no one at the old six-party talks as hosted by China, including the U.S., Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, insisted on elevating biological and chemical weapons to the same level of urgency. We may be sure North Korea would respond with the usual claims of self-defense against terrible enemies, but that’s no reason to ignore the topic.
North Koreans would also note that all the others in the talks have their own arsenals of biological and chemical weapons. The U.S., Russia, China and Japan have gone far in this field.
No one forgets Japan’s infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria where Japanese scientists injected deadly viruses into prisoners, killing thousands during Japan’s occupation of the region before and during World War II.
It’s safe to assume the Key Resolve U.S.-South Korean military exercises now under way include training in defending against these poisons.
The fact is that stashes of biological and chemical weapons are more difficult to detect than nuclear weapons and missiles despite devices to sniff them out.
Satellite imagery can spot missiles on launching pads, and the North’s five underground nuclear tests were detected immediately by seismic devices. Nobody, however, knows what experiments are going on inside the North’s laboratories. One report suggested a pesticide factory, visited by Kim Jong-Un, was producing biological or chemical weapons or both.
For any deal on biological or chemical weapons to work, North Korea would have to agree to inspections. It would be fantasy to believe the North Koreans would come to terms, but the North did sign the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention 30 years ago.
North Korea has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and is believed to have several thousand tons of chemical agents ready for use. There are also reports that deadly chemical and biological mixtures were tested on prisoners, as the Japanese did in Unit 731.
Among the deadliest chemicals are sarin and the same VX agent that was used to do away with Kim Jong-Nam.
VX is many times more powerful than sarin. Either of them can kill in minutes – or seconds. The publicity surrounding this assassination should promote the public awareness needed for high-level debate on stringent international agreements to halt their use – and demands for the North to abandon them along with nuclear warheads.
The image of the victim in agony after two young women smeared his face with VX is an enduringly graphic lesson of the much worse horrors that chemical and biological warfare can inflict on unsuspecting masses.
Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.